How Should Christians Think and Speak?

And should we naturally resist polarisation?

Nigel Chapman

Summary.  This article will answer the question “How Should Christians Think and Speak” in three ways.  The first answer is a one-page statement of how I personally promise to think and speak in response to what follows.  This is additionally intended as a challenge to Christians in public life.  The second answer is a quick walk-through of just the three most substantial passages on this subject.  And the third answer takes up the bulk of the paper.  It dives into three dozen relevant topics, first on thinking, then on speaking, and applies them to a range of questions, ending on how Christians should respond to social polarisation.  I review in my introduction our obligation to love our neighbours and treat them as people loved by God, and so, as our equals.  Our obligation to treat others as we would like them to treat us offers a useful springboard into the questions that follow.

Learning and Thinking.  Christians should seek understanding, and so reject simple-mindedness and immaturity.  We should also seek wisdom, and so reject foolishness in all its characteristic forms.  We should reject falsehood of every kind, speak with sincerity, and complement our own truthfulness with both impartiality and humility.  Impartiality means countering our own biases and listening to others.  Humility means rejecting intellectual pride, and using our minds to serve others.  Applied to a practical problem, our ability to agree about individual objective facts offers a test of whether we are all putting this into practice.

Listening and Speaking.  In Christian community we should maintain peace and unity, freedom of conscience, and exhortation and reproof.  In all circumstances we should be gentle and patient, “blessing, not cursing,” and being characteristically serious without losing good humour.  We should be slow to anger, clearly showing people their fault in any disagreement, and maintaining self-control in every circumstance.  We should never repay evil for evil or insult for insult.  We should make and express right moral judgements, though never with harshness, hypocrisy, or contempt, a lack of mercy or a love of quarrelling.  In public life we should demonstrate quiet respectability, concern for the common good, speech that is clear and bold, holiness without separatism, a resistance to fear, and a rejection of antagonism.  Applied to the practical problem of a conflict about an issue in a Christian community, our concern to understand each other and argue in good faith is a test of whether we are all putting this into practice.  Applied to a social problem, the way we think and speak should resist and oppose social polarisation, drawing attention to the moral lines that must be crossed at every stage of its escalation.

Copyright: ©2019–20, Nigel Chapman
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Table of Contents

Index. 746
1. Introduction 404 7,290
1.a. How I promise to think and speak 604 1,094
1.a.i. A challenge to Christians in public life 490
1.b. TL;DR – A fast approximation 1,651
1.c. Loving one another – A quick review of essentials 707 4,141
1.c.i. Who is your ‘neighbour’? 1,260
1.c.ii. How to love them ‘as yourself’? 1,041
1.c.iii. Love must be tough? 1,133
2. Learning and thinking 767 13,569
2.a. Seeking wisdom and understanding 361 3,993
2.a.i. The immaturity of simple-mindedness 1,547
2.a.ii. The conceit of foolishness 1,108
2.a.iii. What do Christians need to know? 977
2.a.iv. (Faith?)
2.a.v. (Expertise?)
2.b. Building a culture of understanding 195 6,322
2.b.i. Being truthful and rejecting falsehood 1,179
2.b.ii. The objective focus of impartiality 1,317
2.b.iii. The outward focus of humility 709
2.b.iv. (Journalism?) 701
2.b.v. (Conspiracy theories?) 2,221
2.c. When does not learning become a problem? 202 2,487
2.c.i. Some practical questions – Part one 1,156
2.c.ii. Oh no!  A disagreement about a fact! 1,129
3. Listening and speaking 320 24,297
3.a. Universal Christian norms 72 8,448
3.a.i. Representing Christ
3.a.ii. Kindness, gentleness, and patience 889
3.a.iii. Seriousness, but with good humour 773
3.a.iv. Right judgement, without condemnation 1,444
3.a.v. (Love the sinner, hate the sin?) 1,122
3.a.vi. Keeping anger slow 1,188
3.a.vii. Not repaying insults 1,518
3.a.viii. (Swearing?) 1,442
3.b. Private life in community 110 2,590
3.b.i. Peace and unity 677
3.b.ii. Freedom of conscience 883
3.b.iii. Exhortation and reproof 920
3.c. Public life in society 171 7,768
3.c.i. Quiet respectability 836
3.c.ii. Seeking peace in exile 1,374
3.c.iii. Speaking clearly and boldly 1,134
3.c.iv. Holiness without separatism 1,769
3.c.v. Never letting fears alarm us 1,358
3.c.vi. Rejecting Antagonism 1,126
3.d. When does not listening become a problem? 370 2,687
3.d.i. Some practical questions – Part two 1,812
3.d.ii. Oh no!  A conflict about an issue! 505
3.e. A practical case study: Polarisation 263 2,484
3.e.i. Five moral boundaries in polarisation 1,467
3.e.ii. How can Christians prevent polarisation? 754
4. License 308
Total words. 46,210
These parts do not appear in the index's outline: • (1).

1.   Introduction

Christians and Christian groups think and speak in very different ways in public life.  While this article aims to be a comprehensive answer to the title question, I want to focus especially on ignorance and antagonism as I proceed, and whether Christians may ever choose or accept these qualities.  Antagonistic people are not necessarily uninformed, and the uninformed are not necessarily antagonistic.  However, the qualities of ignorance and antagonism tend to grow together, and they reinforce each other in consistent ways, so it is expedient to treat the two at once.  Can Christians ever be justified in thinking and speaking in these ways?

This article is mostly a chain of biblical references, proceeding topically through these subjects.  There are many different, often overlapping ways in which Christians understand and engage with scripture – an authority, a revelation, a spirituality, the story we wake up in – but this should be relevant to any Christians who think scripture contains a practical God’s-eye perspective on our ethical lives.  This will be, to some extent, a list of do’s and don’ts.  Christians should not have much trouble adapting it to their own understanding.  And it may be just as useful to others wanting to convict Christians of hypocrisy in public life by reference to such a list or standard.  I want to invite exactly that kind of challenge and criticism.

But while checklists have value, we can go beyond them.  Understanding how we should think and speak is not as good as understanding why, if that’s a question we can answer.  We can only apply the ‘how’ answers to new issues and difficult cases if we understand why they matter to God.  And of course, all our thought and practice benefits from deeper understanding.  Often the questions of why and how are answered together in the relevant parts of the Old and New Testaments.  So I will generally try to consider principles and rationales as I proceed.

Scripture references are NRSV or NRSVA except where noted otherwise; comments are invited and rewrites are ongoing; headlines that appear in round brackets are topical asides and excursions.  An ebook download is available from chapman.wiki.


(Some optional questions appear at the end of each section.)

  • Before you start, what are your top three answers to the title question?
  • Does this whole topic sound unimportant at best, or politically correct ‘tone policing’ at worst?  Why so or why not?

1.a.   How I promise to think and speak

Fifteen standards for public life, according to Christian scripture:
  1. Love and Care.  I will never speak or think of others with contempt, but as people loved by God and equal to myself.  I will speak and think of others as I would like them to speak and think of me.
  1. Understanding.  I will reject simple-mindedness, foolishness, and immaturity, but rather will seek out and value learning.  I will seek to understand Christ, to answer questions I am asked, to warrant credibility and respect.
  2. Wisdom.  I will reject foolishness and seek out and value wisdom, neither being gullible nor wasting my time.  I will reject the conceit of thinking or acting as if I know more than I do, and appreciate and respect those who do know more.
  3. Truthfulness.  I will reject falsehoods of every kind, whether wilful lies, lazy self-serving assumptions, or tasty rumours.  I will speak sincerely, stand by what I say, invite correction, and apologise promptly and publicly for errors.
  4. Impartiality.  I will reject favouritism, prejudice, bias, corruption, and hypocrisy, including double standards.  I will not just believe the first thing I hear, but listen to other sides.
  5. Humility.  Like Christ, I will set aside my own status and interests to serve others.  I will develop and use my intellectual gifts for their benefit.  I will reject intellectual pride and not more think of my intelligence or learning than is warranted.
  1. Representing Christ.  I will speak with sincerity, as if speaking God’s words, representing Christ, and indwelt by his spirit.  I will be conscious of God’s love for all people, and his grace toward me.  I will aim to be able to say, with Paul, “Imitate me, as I imitate Christ.”
  2. Peace and Reconciliation.  I will make peace and seek agreement and reconciliation, especially with fellow Christians.  In disagreements I will respect that others may be acting in good conscience.
  3. Gentleness and Patience.  I will clothe myself with compassion, kindness, gentleness, and patience.  I will rid myself of bitterness, envy, rage, malice, slander, and abusive language.  I will bear with the failings of others, seeking to build them up rather than tear them down.
  4. Slow Anger.  I will recognise some injustices deserve anger.  I will be quick to listen, show to speak, and slow to become angry.  I will bless and not curse others.  I will never repay evil for evil, or insult for insult, but will be self-controlled.
  5. Right Judgements.  I will strive to make right moral judgements, without harshness, hypocrisy, contempt, a lack of mercy, or a love of quarrelling.  I will strive to be holy without becoming separate from others.
  6. Exhortation and Reproof.  I will hold fellow Christians to high standards, offering patient correction and seeking to be reconciled.  In any disagreement I will explain clearly what I think is wrong, recognising by own fallibility.
  7. Clarity and Boldness.  I will seek to persuade others by speaking both clearly and boldly, and never letting fears alarm me.
  8. Quiet Respectability.  I will live a quiet life, aiming to be respected by people outside my own communities.  As an exile and foreigner, I will seek the peace and well-being of my society.  I will give no legitimate reason for offence, and so that Christ will not be dishonoured.
  1. Applied to Polarisation.  In contentious matters, I will reject and expose partiality and division, falsehoods and disinformation, agitation and manipulation, antagonism and hostility, and all efforts to obtain advantages by these tactics.

 

 

Signed, ……………………………………………………..

1.a.i.   A challenge to Christians in public life

The preceding section, How I promise to think and speak (§1.a), poses a test for anyone who asks to be recognised as a Christian in public life, or who speaks as an advocate for (in their view) Christian values or interests.  Will they promise to think and speak in a Christian manner so that God and the gospel will be not be dishonoured?  Will they publicly commit themselves to these standards, and repent and change if they fail to achieve them?  If they won’t – and if they won’t argue for what different view of appropriate Christian behaviour they do hold – then what evidence of their sincerity or maturity could they offer in its place?  While God knows every person’s heart and we do not, we recognise trees by their fruit, and a public figure should be judged by the character they actually display.  Holding leaders to account in this way, and demanding public figures be both principled and willingly accountable, is one way that Christians can visibly improve our standards of public life.  Of course, the same applies to any Christian in their local community, their circle of acquaintances, and their whole social world; we shouldn’t challenge others to adopt standards that we ourselves ignore.  But the actions of leaders are more significant in public life.

The manner of our life is an integral part of our message.  It might well be the largest part.  It projects on to a giant screen what we really think about God, knowledge, goodness, society, the gospel, our neighbours, and the common good.  It says implicitly: you can be like this.

Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.  (1 Cor 11:1)
Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do.  (Phil 3:17)

We should then decide that how we speak and think will itself represent God, and reflect the image of Christ.  To do this will please God; it will be right in itself; it will serve and build up those around us; and it will make God’s kingdom and the values of that kingdom tangible in the world in which we live.  Christians are the people of the perfect future.  Why would we not live out its values now?

On the website you can click the Edit button next to any section in order to print just that section.  If you wish, this will allow you to print and sign How I promise to think and speak (§1.a).


  1. What is the worst example you can recall of a Christian public figure bringing faith into disrepute?
  2. What is missing from this summary, or what could be removed so more important things can be added?
  3. For each of these promises above – if you agree with them – can you name one or two biblical references or reasons behind them?  Just the main ones.

1.b.   TL;DR – A fast approximation

Too long?  Don’t read?  There’s a good-enough quick summary in just three major passages of the Bible – Eph 4:25–5:20, Col 3:1–18, and James 3:1–18.  If you know the New Testament at all well, you know that the letters to the neighbouring churches in Ephesus and Colossae have long parallel sections, which include the passages we’re looking at here.  These build on Old Testament passages like Psalm 15:

O Lord, who may abide in your tent?
Who may dwell on your holy hill?
Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right,
and speak the truth from their heart;
who do not slander with their tongue,
and do no evil to their friends,
nor take up a reproach against their neighbours…   (Psalm 15:1–5)

These passages address not only how Christians should think and speak, but also why.  Its themes are not laid out in sequence, but intertwined all the way through, in a kind of organic unity.  If we weave the parallels in Ephesians and Colossians together, with a nod now and then to James and other books, at least eight major themes jump out.  Listing them in the same general order as the longer article that follows:


  1. Be kind and loving.  Be kind to one another, tenderhearted (Eph 5:2); bear with one another (Col 3:13); “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”  (Col 3:12); “above all, clothe yourselves with love” (Col 3:14).
  2. Reject falsehood.  Remove and reject falsehood; speak the truth (Eph 4:25), and “do not lie to one another” (Col 3:9).
  3. Seek wisdom.  “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly”; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom (Col 3:16); be wise and not foolish (Eph 5:16–17).
  4. Represent God.  “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Col 3:17); and in a way that reflects God’s spirit within (Eph 4:30); and honours people made in God’s likeness (James 3:9).
  5. Forgive and reconcile.  Instead of anger, which is a trap, seek urgently to be reconciled with others (Eph 4:26, cf. James 1:19); “if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col 3:13).
  6. Build people up.  Words easily run away and destroy (James 3:3–6; cf. Gal 5:15).  Speak no evil, but only what is useful for building each other up (Eph 4:28, cf. Eph 4 generally).
  7. Reject anger: be self-controlled.  Put away (or put off, like clothing) all bitterness, wrath, anger and slander, together with all malice (Eph 4:31); “get rid of all such things – anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth” (Col 3:8); “let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19–20).  “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless” (1:26).
  8. Speak with decorum.  Fornication, impurity and greed “must not even be mentioned among you” (cf. Col 3:8); there should be no “obscene, silly, and vulgar talk” (v.4).

Of course, seeking to reconcile others and build them up means that we will think and say specific things.  But these aims also require a conciliatory and constructive manner, and so, they necessarily inform the way we ought to speak as well.

These passages give reasons for the behaviour that they expect.  In Ephesians, the passage on conduct fits into a passage that begins with church unity and concludes with social propriety, emphasising that,

  • We should be like God, especially in his incarnation: “forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” (Eph 4:32); “be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us” (Eph 5:1–2)
  • We belong to each other (Eph 4:25), like parts of the same ‘body’.

We can see how these two ethics reshape society in the way they affect Christian marriage in Eph 5:21–33.  In Paul’s other writing, a contrast between ‘flesh’ and ‘spirit’ describes the tendencies of the whole person toward good or evil.  But in these passages in Ephesians and Colossians we find a different set of contrasts between life in Christ and what, for a largely non-Jewish audience, went before it.  Note in Colossians 3:1–11 especially:

  • The things which characterised your former life should not characterise your present life (Col 3:7).  That life was under God’s judgement (Col 3:6), but it died with Christ, and we are now “hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3).  Far from being under judgement, you are “chosen… holy and beloved” (Col 3:12), having “stripped off your old self and its practices” (Col 3:9).  Your new self is being actively remade in God’s image (Col 3:10); it is united with other Christians, and no longer divided from others by class, ethnicity or (for Jewish Christians) religious law (Col 3:11).
  • Those former things are earthly rather than heavenly (Col 3:1–2), just as much as “fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed” (Col 3:5).  The heavenly life is characterised by peace (Col 3:15).
  • Remember that for Paul, Jesus’ resurrection makes us citizens of God’s perfect future and kingdom.  Christian resurrection is not just coming back to life: Jesus was the first person, and his body the first part of the world, to be transformed into perfection and freed from corruption and decay.  In the Christian hope, the entire universe will be changed in this way (Col 3:5).  “God’s kingdom” is God’s perfect goodness and power applied to both the material world and to our own lives.  Being “raised with Christ” means our present life is a visible part of God’s kingdom, and will be in future liberated and perfected in the same way as his.  We should, therefore, live out the values and practices – the foreign culture – of that kingdom in our present circumstances (Col 3:2,11).

Ephesians and Colossians ground the way we think and speak in these realities.  A seemingly incidental comment by James is worth adding to this big-picture overview.  When he writes about how we speak to each other, he grounds it in a quality all human beings have by nature:

no one can tame the tongue – a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.  From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.  My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.  (James 3:8–10)

Notice the phrase “made in the likeness of God,” reflecting the opening chapter of Genesis (“created… in his image”, Gen 1:26–27).  This means that human beings represent God in the world, and are the only things in the world that do.  What comprises the image or likeness is not stated.  Rationality, personality, moral responsibility, and life in relationship to others are common ideas about what it means; certainly they are all human distinctives, at least in the degree that human beings possess them.  What matters is that human nature represents God in some distinctive way; the inverse of the idea that God is a projection of human interests (as in, say, Feuerbach).  This underlies scripture’s ban on making other, false, or empty images of God: idols don’t replace God so much as they replace human beings as the things that represent him; they distort how we think of his true, human, images, and deflect the attention and care that we owe them.  James 3:9, in saying human beings may not be verbally abused, seems to parallel Gen 9:6, which says they may not be physically abused either, for the same reason.  In both cases, human beings must be honoured as the representations of God that they are, and, in God’s sight, as our equals.  This should remind us of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matt 25:31–46, in which the final lesson is that what we do to others is what we do to God.

In these passages, we can see that Christians should speak and think with truth and wisdom, without “bitterness, wrath, anger and slander”, representing Christ and loving others, being conciliatory and (literally) constructive, and showing self-control and social propriety.  We should do so because we have a new life, united with Christ and with others in God.  Their old and ‘earthly’ life is now to be characterised by the ‘heavenly’ qualities of God’s nature and wisdom, which will in future characterise his remaking of the whole universe in perfection.  And because all human beings are representations of God, they must be treated accordingly by Christians.

The Old and New Testaments have much more to say about the ways in which we should think and speak.  These passages are just a sensible starting point.  They weave so many of the major threads together in one place, that they offer a substantial ethic in their own right, and a framework to build on.  For everything else, there’s a much longer article following.


  • How does this set of standards relate to your society’s idea of how a decent or good person should act?
  • When you were growing up, what impression did you have of the way Christians (or certain groups of them) actually thought and spoke?  If you answered the question in §1, did you guess right?
  • Does this seem overly idealistic or impractical, whether as a Christian ethic, or as any other kind?

1.c.   Loving one another – A quick review of essentials

Love is the most essential and the most essentially Christian of our values.  It’s the one that people most particularly notice, whether by its presence or its absence.  We will see that in some passages it is presented as the one God notices the most as well.  This should all be familiar, so skip ahead to Learning and thinking (§2) if so.  It will do no harm, however, to revisit this by way of introduction.  When Jesus was asked to name the greatest commandment in the Jewish Law, he gave his top two, both on the basis of love:

The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’  The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’  (Mark 12:28–31, quoting Deut 6:5 and Lev 19:18).

In the New Testament letters, Paul reinforces this in the exact same words.  All God’s commandments “are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’” (Rom 13:9–10, cf.  Gal 5:14).  Similarly, James 2:8.

We might more naturally connect ‘love’ with our hearts and actions than our minds and speech.  Since “faith without works is dead” (James 2:17, 20, 26), “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3:18; cf. Matt 25:31–46).  We should not be all talk and no action.  However, our words and actions are both reflections of our minds and hearts.  Whether we love sincerely, or with hypocrisy, this will be seen for what it is by God and others (cf. Luke 12:1–3).  What we think and feel will be revealed in what we do and say.

Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit.  You brood of vipers!  How can you speak good things, when you are evil?  For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.  The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure.  I tell you, on the day of judgement you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.  (Matt 12:33–37)
Then he [Jesus] called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.  … [W]hat comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.  For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander.  These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”  (Matt 15:10–20)

The Letter of James even connects undisciplined speech with self-deception.  “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.”  (James 1:26).  This connection suggests that the act of speaking trains and reinforces what we think and feel.  This is worrying when, as he continues, “no one can tame the tongue – a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (3:8).

It may seem impossible to love as God loves, and it is proverbially difficult to control our words and thoughts.  Then again, there’s no indication that Jesus, Paul, or anybody else in scripture thought good speech and thought was an unreasonable expectation; in fact it is expected of everyone.  So let’s frame the questions in the same terms they did: asking who my ‘neighbour’ is, and how I can love them ‘as myself’?  And then, whether and how love also needs to be ‘tough’?


  • Before continuing, what do you think ‘loving others’ should look like?  What are the main three ways that it would be apparent?

1.c.i.   Who is your ‘neighbour’?

A first reaction to the Christian command that we love our neighbours is to think it couldn’t possibly be practical or serious.  Maybe it only means some people?  Is it just our in-groups, the people in society with whom we identify or have something in common: our family, friends, church, colleagues, or community?  In every society, people feel a higher level of responsibility to their in-groups.  This can be seen in scripture too, with families and friends, or fellow Israelites and fellow Christians: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  (John 13:35).  “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13); “whoever does not provide for relatives, and especially for family members, has denied the faith…” (1 Tim 5:8).

But Scripture’s obligations don’t stop with our in-groups, even though some bonds of love are special and unique.  Israel’s law required “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut 10:19; noting the significance in Deuteronomy of vv.10–22).  This develops further in the Old Testament and is then amplified into love of enemy in the New Testament:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.  For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?  Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others?  Do not even the Gentiles do the same?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.  (Matt 5:43–48, cf.  Luke 6:32–36)

If you have to love your enemies, how can you not, in principle, love those with whom you are in less or no conflict, or who are more to you than strangers?

When Jesus was once asked “Who is my neighbour?”, he answered with a story on this theme that culminated with question in reply.  A man was robbed and beaten and left lying by the road.  Two Jewish leaders passed by without helping, but a foreigner stopped, picked up the victim, put him on his animal, took him to an inn where he could recover, and paid for this with his own money.  Jesus answers the question by asking one of his own: “Which of these three was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” (Luke 10:29–37).

To understand the story we have to ask what sort of people we implicitly trust and mistrust.  The people that his Jewish hearers most respected walked on by.  But it was the Samaritan who chose to be a neighbour.  “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans” (John 4:9).  Pick a class of people you don’t like, or don’t trust, or look down upon.  Imagine one of those people loves your neighbour and puts their own money down to help them in time of need.  Then imagine Jesus points at two of your kind of people who could have helped but didn’t, and asks you which one was the neighbour?  Like the principle of love for enemies, the Parable of the Good Samaritan undermines every effort to draw borders around the command to love our neighbours.  Jesus’ answer to the question “Who is my neighbour?”  is “To whom can you be a neighbour?”

It’s likely that Jesus is drawing this broad view of neighbourhood from the Old Testament.  Not long after the command to love your neighbour ‘as yourself’ in Leviticus 19, we read that love must be expressed through equality.  (Note ‘alien’ here means ‘foreigner’.)

The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.  (Lev 19:34)

The borderless nature of love doesn’t mean that it’s possible to love everyone in the same way, or in the same degree, that we love our friends and families.  No individual has the time or resources.  However, that was just as true in Jesus time as it is now, and his implicit question, “To whom can you be a neighbour?”  suggests a very simple answer to this problem.  We can focus on those right in front of us, and then, as our time and resources allow, on those further off, and then, and perhaps especially, on those no-one else seems to be noticing (‘lost sheep’, Luke 15:4).  We can focus on what we each can do effectively (1 Cor 9:26), and by working together as the different parts of a single body, we can achieve more than we could as individuals.

What we can’t do, though, is justify ourselves by drawing borders around who deserves that love and who doesn’t.  Note that this was the intention of the person who asked him to, in effect, “Define neighbour!” (Luke 10:29).  Love can’t be minimised, relativised, or explained away because it is grounded in God’s nature, and in Jesus’ explicit teaching and example: “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”  (John 13:34); “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25); “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another” (4:10–11); “rarely will anyone die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die.  But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:7–8).

The other thing we can’t do is to treat love as an optional extra.  “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”  (1 Jn 4:8); ‘Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars’ (1 Jn 4:20).  Or perhaps most famously:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, [or to be burned] but do not have love, I gain nothing.  (1 Cor 13:1–3)

  • When Christianity arose in the Roman Empire, the idea that anyone had an obligation to love all their neighbours, let alone poor people, slaves, prisoners, and so on, was so counter-cultural as to be the subject of satire (e.g. Lucian of Samosata’s The Passing of Peregrinus, 160 CE).  Does your society today feel the same?  Has Christian influence changed things?  Or is this ‘just obvious’ now?

1.c.ii.   How to love them ‘as yourself’?

As we’ve seen, “Love your neighbour as yourself” is an Old Testament command that Jesus used to headline and encapsulate all others.  The term ‘as yourself’ of course should remind us of the Golden Rule, or principle of reciprocity:

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.  (Matt 7:12; cf.  Mark 12:31; Luke 6:31)

This is similar to saying, “Don’t do to others what you don’t want them to do to you,” except that it is proactive.  It doesn’t stop with just avoiding bad behaviour.  It insists on also doing good, and doing it first.  But what sort of ‘love’ is expected?  If we think about what kind of ‘love’ we feel toward ourselves, and how it works out in our lives, then we see it’s not sexual or romantic, it’s not our love of family, it’s not the lesser loves we have for pets or hobbies or places or favourite things.  But what sort is it?

“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  He said, “The one who showed him mercy.”  Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”  (Luke 10:36–37)

The Good Samaritan simply took care of the man who had been robbed and beaten, and that was what made him a neighbour.  Which, in practical terms, is how we love ourselves.  We understand ourselves; we show kindness, patience, grace, and mercy toward ourselves; we make sacrifices for ourselves.  Think of how Paul applies very similar language to Christian husbands loving their wives:

… husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies.  He who loves his wife loves himself.  For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body.  (Gal 5:28–30)

Loving your neighbours means caring for your neighbours, because that’s what loving yourself means.

Reciprocity is not a perfect measure of love, however.  Firstly, it is not all that love requires.  We have to love people as God loved us, not just as we love ourselves (John 15:12–13).  So the principle seems to provide a minimum standard, one that everybody can relate to.  And secondly, as a general principle, it need not cover all conceivable situations.  Parents can love their children without giving them everything they want.  Sometimes what adults want for themselves can be positively self-destructive.  And we all have at least slightly different ideas about how we’d like to be treated.  But it hardly undermines the general principle to say that we should show consideration of what others want, when we would appreciate the same consideration in return.  Or that we should strive to act in each other’s best interests, since we would want the same.  Our shared humanity and life together means most of what we each want for ourselves will be the same.  So reciprocity is a general principle that supplies an attainable minimum for behaviour rather than a comprehensive ethical system that caters for every exceptional situation.  However, because reciprocity is proactive, it means that we have no excuse for not taking the first steps.

This is easily applied to how we think and speak, because we all know how we would like other people to think and speak.  It might be worth putting this article down for a moment, and writing out what’s on your personal list.  My own list looks like this:

I want others to –
  • desire truth, be self-critical, and consider that they could be at least partly wrong; acknowledge their fallibility, admit what they don’t know, apologise when they are wrong; appreciate correction and express thanks for it
  • either have a comprehensive understanding, not just gotchas and sound-bytes, or acknowledge that they don’t; be able to summarise what they are saying so it’s easier to understand; fairly represent, and show they understand, what those with whom they disagree are saying
  • ask questions that matter enough to seek answers, and stick with them for long enough to make progress; have patience with complexity
  • show how they reach their conclusions, and help me to follow or check these by giving their sources; value expertise and seek it out; use expertise judiciously and with respect for consensus, not just quoting that one expert who happens to be useful to them
  • show intelligent charity, a presumption of sense and good will, rather than point-scoring or posturing; not hold some accidental oversight against me
  • strive for peace amid hostility, and try to de-escalate tensions; distinguish emotions from evidence; welcome new evidence; recognise the blinding effects of antagonism or partisanship
  • not pretend to know my motives and intentions, and certainly not just assume the worst, or assume whatever makes for easier dismissal
  • educate others, and build a culture of respect for learning; publicly hold people they agree with, those on their own side, to the same standards

This list is not binding on you.  It’s just what comes to my mind when I ask myself how I’d like others to think and speak, at least when dealing with me.  You’ll notice I’m not especially concerned about how I feel.  That’s a personal peculiarity, and this, and a range of similar issues will reasonably matter much more to others.  We’ll all have at least partly different lists.  But this list does correctly state how I want to be treated.  And since reciprocal love means treating people how I want to be treated, then I have no excuse for not proceeding with this, at least as a starting point.  Your list will give you your own starting point for loving others as yourself in the way that you should speak and think.


  • How does reciprocity relate to the idea of equality, as generally understood in society?
  • What’s the kind of love you have toward yourself?  What does that look like when applied to others?
  • Make a list of how you want others to think and speak in their dealings with you.  What are the most important points?

1.c.iii.   Love must be tough?

A perpetual tension exists between love and life’s harder aspects, like authority and discipline, justice and security, economics and productivity, freedom and boundaries.  Does welfare stop a person standing on their own feet, or does it help them get back on their feet?  If we help others, will they take advantage of it, or will it threaten our security?  Is life fundamentally fair, if we’re tough enough, or is it still unfair, even if we’re tough?  Are we more concerned that love be tough than that toughness be loving?

Specifically, how tough should we be in the way that we speak and think?  Toughness is not a guarantee of good speech, as many kinds of pride, strife, self-assertion and abuse are characteristically tough.  It is better by far to name the qualities requiring strength and discipline rather than to group them together under this one umbrella of ‘toughness’.  We should say that love must be honest, impartial, serious, and so on, naming exactly the qualities that need our attention.  Where they affect the way we speak and think, these themes appear in this article under the following headings.

One obvious way to know if toughness has gone too far is to check if it is interfering with other aspects of Christian character.  For this purpose we could ask our friends, both online and in real life, to hold us to what ought to be quite basic biblical standards of love and wisdom:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  (1 Cor 13:4–6)
Who is wise and understanding among you?  Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom … the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.  (James 3:13, 17)

Of course, the great appeal of toughness is its rugged, self-reliant practicality.  The ethics we find in the New Testament may seem impractical in contrast, or at least easily abused.  Won’t we be ripped off or taken advantage of if we live like this?  Won’t those who lie, insult, rage, insinuate, manipulate, and never say that they were wrong or sorry, just continue on?  Won’t they see us as dupes or idiots?  Doesn’t this let them get ahead in the world?  Don’t we need to put them in their place?  Won’t we be increasingly marginalised and ignored?  The following principles seem relevant to these concerns.

  • Winning is being like Christ, whatever happens.
  • Evil should be exposed rather than repaid in kind.
  • If you have to choose, it is better to be wronged than to do wrong.

Firstly, as Philippians 2 most pointedly emphasises, Jesus is the model for Christian living: in humility preferring others ahead of yourself.  This is not changed by suffering opposition, because he modelled this behaviour in the face of deadly opposition.  It may be, as happened in early Roman Christianity, that this example progressively changes the moral expectations of society for the better.  Whether it does or not, however, this is what winning looks like.

Secondly, evils can be exposed rather than repaid in kind.  Within the church, there is a process for reproof and correction; and in society journalism performs a similar function (see §2.b.iv).  When someone does wrong, they will nonetheless desire to be seen and respected as a good person.  They will put up a front and resent any suggestion of impropriety.  Many can deal with opposition, but still fear exposure.  And it is exposure, not just opposition, that comes with the hope of improvement.

Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.  (Eph 5:11)

Notice how Paul concludes his long exhortation to non-retaliation in Rom 12:9–21, by quoting Proverbs on the right way to ‘retaliate’, knowing how an aggressive person will respond to kindness:

If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat;
and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink;
for you will heap coals of fire on their heads,
and the Lord will reward you.  (Prov 25:21–22)

Paul sums up this ethic in several different ways: “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good” (v.9); “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them” (v.14); “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all” (V.17); “Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good” (v.21).  Do not, as it were, join hands with the wicked by acting as they do.

Thirdly, if it comes to the crunch, we should maintain that it is better to be wronged than to do wrong.  Paul gives this advice to some of the Corinthians when they are having lawsuits against each other:

When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints?  … I say this to your shame.  Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to decide between one believer and another, but a believer goes to court against a believer – and before unbelievers at that?  In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you.  Why not rather be wronged?  Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—and believers at that.  Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God?  (1 Cor 6:1–9)

It’s reasonable where possible to avoid being wronged.  But it’s much more important to make sure you don’t wrong other people.  When it comes to a choice between the two, we chose not wronging others.


  • What does it mean to be tough in the cultures or subcultures that you know the best?  What does Jesus’ example uphold about this ideal, and what does it challenge?
  • What do you find concerning or unsettled about living out these ethics in public life?
  • Can you think of differences between your situation and that of Jesus or Paul, which might require adjustments to the kind of principles covered here?

✻ ✻ ✻

If this is all sound, then we should consider love to be as foundational to Christian thought and speech as to any other aspect of Christian living.  The bulk of this article will involve looking at each of these in turn.

2.   Learning and thinking

Must Christians learn and think?  How, and how much?  How, for each of us, does this balance or compare with our other priorities?  From the other angle, how much is faith and faithfulness endangered or discredited by simple-mindedness or foolishness?  Most Christians, I expect, could trace out the following five themes in scripture (the acronym rhymes with ‘ooty’).

Understanding U not simple-mindedness or immaturity
Wisdom W not foolishness
Truthfulness T not falsehood or rumour
Impartiality I not prejudice or corruption
Humility H not self-absorption or intellectual pride

Still, in public life, we seldom bump into a settled Christian commitment to learning and thinking well, whether on these grounds or any others.  In this article, I’ll try to weave these themes together into this kind of synopsis.  Along the way we’ll look at some objections too, including the often supposed opposition between faith and understanding.

Few of us take well to the suggestion that we might have had lower-than-average educational outcomes, or might in the course of our life have picked up some foolish ways of thinking.  It can seem shameful to have biases or to believe falsehoods.  It can feel like people are saying they’re better than us, and putting us down.  But we need not feel this way.  Nobody ever sits down and decides to become ignorant or to believe falsehoods.  Usually it’s a consequence of circumstances or a side-effect of other choices, and half the time we think we’re being clever.  Thinking that we’re fine is what makes it a humbling shock to recognise when we’re mistaken; but that’s a healthy shock.  As in any other part of life we should be pleased to find our faults, and get on with correcting them.  As we will see, the Bible calls this wisdom.

Of course, there is a standout biblical example of a person turning around in this way.  In the New Testament, the Pharisee Saul’s zeal for God was the root of his personal identity, until he realised it had brought him to the point of fighting against God (Acts 9:4; Gal 2:13–14).  Speaking of his former compatriots, and so too, of his former self, he wrote:

I can testify that they have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened.  (Rom 10:2)

The lesson that Paul learned the hard way is something most people will intuitively recognise when it is pointed out to them: that enthusiasm cannot compensate for a lack of understanding.  No passionate intensity or sacrificial devotion can fix a wrong understanding, unless it also drives a person to improve their understanding.  And some kinds of misunderstanding can change everything, as Paul would tell you.

Desire without knowledge is not good,
and one who moves too hurriedly misses the way.  (Prov 19:2)
It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good… (Gal 4:18, NIV)

But how do we work on our understanding, or root out falsehood, unless by learning?  Can we perhaps mature our zeal so that we integrate a zeal for truth and knowledge – but knowledge without pride or sophistry?

We know that a respect for truth is present everywhere in scripture.  We find it most strongly expressed in exhortations to be honest rather than dishonest: “speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way” (Eph 4:15); “…putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another.”  (Eph 4:25).  But there are two ways to be false.  It can happen through dishonesty, but also through neglect.  We can be false by just not caring or not checking whether what we say is true.

Who perceives his unintentional sins?
Cleanse me from my hidden faults.  (Psalm 19:12)

Let’s keep this in mind as we run through the Bible’s commitment to understanding and wisdom, and its supporting values of truthfulness, impartiality, and humility.  It’s no shame to find ourselves in the wrong on some matter; the shame is in not changing when we do.


  • Try and think of something you once were wrong about.  How did you come to realise this?  Could you have learned it sooner than you did?
  • When is zeal good and bad?  When zeal is misplaced, is knowledge or correction typically enough to counteract it?  What checks can we place on our enthusiasm, to ensure that it doesn’t mislead us?
  • Can there be zeal for quiet things like knowledge?  Or does it tend to be loud and hasty?

2.a.   Seeking wisdom and understanding

The problem of not learning is taken up in scripture under the major headings of foolishness and simple-mindedness in the Old Testament, and then immaturity in the New Testament.

Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice.  At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?  How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?  Give heed to my reproof; I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words known to you.  (Prov 1:20–23, cf. Prov 8:1–36)

Wisdom is free and available, helpful and satisfying, and yet the wise can hardly give the stuff away.  The simple don’t care what they don’t know; the scoffers say it’s all just talk; the foolish despise what they do not possess, what might reflect on them poorly; and others, like sluggards and drunkards, prefer their illusions (Prov 23:33–35; 26:13–14, 16).

The lazy person is wiser in self-esteem than seven who can answer discreetly.  (Prov 26:16)

So how can we be sure that we have wisdom and understanding?  Isn’t that exactly what a foolish or a simple-minded person would believe about themselves, but falsely?  Looking at the features of simple-mindedness and foolishness in scripture is one good way to start thinking about this, and meditating and praying about it.


You favour men with knowledge, and teach mortals understanding.  O favour us with the knowledge, the understanding and the insight that come from you.  Blessed are you, O Lord, the gracious giver of knowledge. (Amidah, v.4)

  • The thrice-daily prayers of orthodox Judaism contain this request for wisdom and understanding.  What would it look like for God to answer that daily prayer in the life of your church, or the church in general?
  • What images does the phrase “Christian Intellectual Tradition” call to your mind?  Does every Christian need to be well-informed?  On what sort of topics?  May this expectation differ with time and place?

2.a.i.   The immaturity of simple-mindedness

Wisdom literature is devoted to intelligence and understanding, as well as the development of moral common sense, or prudence.  Those who neglect these qualities are called ‘the simple’ in Proverbs:

O simple ones, learn prudence; acquire intelligence, you who lack it.  (Prov 8:5)
For waywardness kills the simple, and the complacency of fools destroys them… (Prov 1:32)
The simple believe everything, but the clever consider their steps.  (Prov 14:15).

In such passages a simple-minded person is either conspicuously gullible or slack in socially expected learning.  Whereas fools, as we will see, despise learning and pride themselves on knowing better, the simple-minded just neglect it.

In the New Testament, there is no direct parallel to the Wisdom Literature, at least at the level of genre.  It is presupposed as part of Jewish scripture, though, and its characteristic concerns appear intermittently, such as in Jesus’ parables about wise or foolish builders, servants, and wedding guests (Matt 7:24–27; 24:45–51; 25:1–13).  But the best and most general parallel can be found in letters to Christian communities suffering from immaturity.

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.  (1 Cor 13:10)
Brothers and sisters, do not be children in your thinking; rather, be infants in evil, but in thinking be adults.  (1 Cor 14:20)

The necessity of growing in our understanding is sometimes obscured by the need for Christian faith to be in some ways childlike.

Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.  (Jesus, Mark 10:14, cf.  Matt 18:2–5)

These two ideas draw different lessons from the one metaphor.  A child is trusting, dependent, humble, innocent, and of course immature, but it’s not the immaturity that offers the relevant parallels with Christian faith.  We are by nature inferior and dependent beings when compared to God.  Being loved, as well, this means we are always in something like a parent-child relationship.  But in our personal and spiritual development we are expected to make progress to maturity as human beings and as Christian disciples.  Healthy children grow, and want to grow.

… you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love.  For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.  (2 Pet 1:5–8)

This image of children growing into adults appears repeatedly in the New Testament, often in the context of teaching and understanding.  The mature are those “whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil” (Heb 5:14).  This development is gradual, attained by persevering, as you “let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:4).

Two traits are especially emphasised as consequences of Christian maturity.  One is a deep understanding of faith, another is a sense of perspective about the different things that can occupy our time and interests, or shape our social lives for better and worse.  The first kind of maturity means gaining depth and consistency in our understanding of God and the world.  This helps to distinguish true faith from the many and varied ideas that swirl all around us.

A good example of this problem appears in Colossians 2.  Paul is concerned that certain “plausible sounding ideas” are undermining faith.  Instead, he wants the Colossians to grow in “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” that are to be found in Christ (v.3).  They faced an issue that is difficult to reconstruct from the evidence available: a concept of stoichea, the “rudiments” or “elements” of the world, had currency in the area.  It seems to have been what some of the Christians followed before (v.20), it presented itself as a kind of philosophical system (v.8), and it led to divisive conflicts over appropriate worship (v.16).  Something very similar happened in Galatia, to the west, where Paul addresses a similar belief in “weak and beggarly” spirits or forces that “are not gods” but formerly “enslaved” them (Gal 4:8–9, stoichea again).  We don’t know with confidence what these beliefs were, but similarly disruptive ideas still appear in church communities today.  For these, from Col 1:24–2:23, Paul recommends developing maturity in understanding Christ.  This is one of the primary purposes of Christian teaching, as a ministry of the church:

It is [Christ] whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ.  (Col 1:28)
We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.  (Eph 4:14)

A second kind of maturity involves a sense of perspective.  This appears especially in the pastoral letters, addressing something like the gullibility attributed to the simple-minded in Proverbs.  Certain social patterns or fascinations had developed and Timothy and Titus were being reminded that they do more harm than good:

Have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels.  (2 Tim 2:22–23)
But avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.  (Tit 3:9)

The most focused comments of this kind appear in 1 Timothy.  After a chapter or two on the clearly contested subject of social order and propriety, Paul writes:

Whoever teaches otherwise and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that is in accordance with godliness, is conceited, understanding nothing, and has a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words.  From these come envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions, and wrangling among those who are depraved in mind and bereft of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.  (1 Tim 6:3–5)

Roughly speaking, mature Christians should be able to tell what kind of controversies or disputes are helpful or not, and so will not develop disruptive or time-wasting fascinations.  They won’t build their self-importance around ‘unprofitable’ issues, nor be manipulated by them into a state of antipathy toward others, especially members of their church communities.  In modern life, this might occur through social polarisation (see §3.e).

In speaking about simple-mindedness, however, we should pay attention to the opposite problem, in which intelligence and learning, in themselves, becomes a source of pride and division.

I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think.  (Rom 12:3)
Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up… (1 Cor 8:1)
Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me… (Jer 9:23–24)
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.  (James 3:1)

A person lacking education or intelligence is no less a human being made in God’s image, just like one lacking strength, wealth, or beauty.  The old insult cretin, meaning at first a deformed person and later a stupid one, comes directly from the French word for Christian.  It was used to mean that every person was a ‘Christian soul’ – a real human being, our equal before God – whatever their deficiencies of body or mind.  A resurrection will correct all those problems and more.  And collectively, a church in which “not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth” was no less a church than any other (1 Cor 1:26–29).  God is more than happy to work through humble means, with the weak, the despised, the foolish.

So you can be Christian and be simple-minded.  It is no credit or benefit to anyone, though, and it may threaten your faith and calling.  Come as you are, but if it’s possible in any way at all, do not stay as you are.  As we will see below, someone with no particular access to education should still be able to answer sensible questions about their faith, even when facing opposition for it (§3.c.vi).


  • What kinds of gullibility, ignorance, immaturity, loss of perspective, or “morbid craving” for “senseless controversies” do you see in public life?  Have you seen some kinds peculiar to Christian communities?
  • What degree of understanding is a reasonable expectation in the modern church, and why?  Who is responsible for obtaining or providing it?
  • Have you ever seen a person’s faith undermined by simple-mindedness, or intellectual pride?  In each case, did the person recognise this as a problem?

2.a.ii.   The conceit of foolishness

Some Christians may be wary of calling anyone a fool in light of Jesus’ strict warning against exactly that in the Sermon on the Mount.  (We’ll discuss this shortly, in §3.a.vii.) In contrast, other Christians readily express their indignation at every perceived imbecile who crosses their path (or URL path).  On one hand, if we must avoid foolishness, then we also must identify it, and warn people about it.  But on the other hand, the accusation of foolishness is every angry person’s first recourse in a disagreement: “You’re the fool!” – “No, you’re the fool!” – “ARGH, MORONS!!”  This poses a number of important questions for Christians.  (1) Can fools be reliably recognised?  (2) Am I myself a fool?  If I was, would I know?  And (3) can a fool be helped?

In normal circumstances, recognising fools is not the problem.  Foolishness is proverbially frustrating, and for that reason hard to ignore.  “A whip for the horse, a bridle for the donkey, and a rod for the back of fools” (Prov 26:3).  “If the wise go to law with fools, there is ranting and ridicule without relief” (29:9).  “A stone is heavy, and sand is weighty, but a fool’s provocation is heavier than both” (27:3).  So we may empathise with the anger of Job’s friend Zophar, “Should your babble put others to silence, and when you mock, shall no one shame you?” (Job 11:3).  But we should note too that Zophar was wrong about Job (42:7–9); anger is tricky like that.

Not only is foolishness hard to ignore, its qualities are easy to recognise.  The word ‘fool’ appears 70 times in the Book of Proverbs, and its picture of foolishness is strikingly current a few thousand years on.

  • Fools are ignorant (Prov 9:13; 15:7); they despise wisdom, instruction and understanding (Prov 1:7, 22; 14:33; 15:2, 14; 17:24); they “think their own way is right” (Prov 12:15), and “have no mind to learn” (Prov 17:16)
  • They babble loudly (Prov 9:13; 10:8, 12:23); and “take no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing personal opinion” (Prov 18:2) – though they can seem wise by keeping quiet (Prov 17:28)
  • They are careless and imprudent (Prov 14:16; 15:5; 21:20); and they lack self control, especially of anger (Prov 12:16; 14:17; 29:11, 20) and are prone to quarrels (Prov 20:3)
  • They suffer avoidable harm and disgrace (Prov 1:32; 3:35; 10:21, 11:29; 13:20; 14:1, 3, 8; 16:22; 18:6–7; 19:29; 26:3; 28:26); and bring shame and grief to people who know or depend upon them, especially parents (Prov 3:35; 10:1; 17:21, 25; 26:6)
  • They deeply desire to remain as they are (Prov 13:19), compete to be even more foolish (Prov 10:23), and steadfastly resist correction (Prov 9:8; 17:10; 27:22)

We can easily check people we know, public figures, and so on, against this picture.  We can check ourselves, or ask our friends and family to.  We can’t assume that simply being Christian keeps us safe, citing that “The fool has said in his heart, ‘there is no God’” (Ps 14:1, par. Ps 53:1).  While a certain proportion of atheists do dismiss God out of denial or convenience, that can’t be assumed to cover all of them, and it doesn’t guarantee that Christians won’t make even sillier mistakes ourselves.  Still, any person asking if they are a fool seems to have already turned the corner toward seeking wisdom and understanding.  Are they willing to distance themselves from the kind of life described in the list of proverbs given above?  Would they (or would we):

  • Value wisdom, instruction, and understanding?
  • Question ourselves, invite correction, and strive to learn?
  • Resist anger and quarrels?

We’ll consider the pursuit of wisdom and understanding, next, in Building a culture of understanding (§2.b). But first, can we help a person who has already become a fool?  There are arguments for pessimism and for optimism.  Firstly, while foolishness is avoidable and unnecessary, it robustly resists improvement.  “Crush a fool in a mortar with a pestle … but the folly will not be driven out” (27:22).  The wise cannot necessarily help the foolish, because fools by their nature reject wisdom.  Ironically, fools can be proud, and believe they know better (Prov 26:16).  Foolishness can actually be a conceit; the overconfidence of being “wise in your own eyes” (Prov 3:7, 26:12).  So it presents a dilemma:

Answer fools according to their folly, or they will be wise in their own eyes.  (Prov 26:5)
Do not answer fools according to their folly, or you will be a fool yourself.  (Prov 26:4)

Does this mean that fools and scoffers are a waste of our time?  Should you “leave the presence of a fool, for there you do not find words of knowledge” (14:7); and “not speak in the hearing of a fool, who will only despise the wisdom of your words” (23:9)?  There is a case for trying to help.  The whole idea of wisdom literature is to guide people from away from foolishness and toward wisdom, or at least to common sense.  The mere existence of these books is a reason for optimism.  This builds upon the natural desire to raise mature and sensible children who will do good, as the Old Testament generally expects.  Also, the occasions where the New Testament counsels leaving people alone seem to always treat it as a last resort in Christian community (Matt 18:15–17; 1 Tim 6:3–5).

But what can we do to help?  Most importantly, we can distinguish foolishness from the always salvageable person affected by it.  As we will see below (§3.b.iii), we are obligated to show fellow Christians their faults, and to welcome such correction ourselves.  This ensures that we’re not just calling people fools in anger, but rather showing them their foolishness in a precise way, in the hope of change.


  • What kinds of foolishness most aggravate or frustrate you?  Is foolishness an advantage in some situations, at least for impressing foolish people?
  • What do you think prevents foolish Christians from recognising or addressing their problems in this area?  Have you ever seen a person stand up in a church and speak about their struggle with foolishness?
  • Would you be happy to ask your friends, family, or church to tell you if they thought you were being in any respect foolish?

2.a.iii.   What do Christians need to know?

Suppose you agree now that Christians must seek understanding and wisdom, for all the reasons given above (§2.a.i, §2.a.ii).  How do you decide what things you need to know, and how many to take on, and to what depth or breadth?  How do you weight this against your own aptitude for learning, and against the other demands on your time?

We can ask this question at two levels: 1) What expectations of learning appear in scripture, and why, how do they apply to us?  2) What learning is required to meet other biblical expectations, or solve other problems?  This second question is mostly answered in other sections (below), but the questions are worth drawing together:

  1. Can you answer questions you are asked about your faith, or explain misunderstandings in a clear and helpful way, and connect it with popular issues at a deeper level than just agreeing or disagreeing?  – The ‘apologetics’ passage in 1 Pet 3 that is often used to ask these questions, is discussed in Rejecting Antagonism (§3.c.vi).
  2. Does any particular lack of wisdom or understanding seem to cost you credibility or respect in any of your social circles, or the wider community?  – See Quiet respectability (§3.c.i).
  3. Can you help or serve others through learning or teaching, or using your intellectual gifts to solve some important problems?  – See The outward focus of humility (§2.b.iii).

Primarily though, a Christian should understand their own faith if they are ever to connect it sensibly with the world around them.  This can be seen as a Christian obligation, a sheer source of joy, and as a guard against common, avoidable errors.  We find this first in the Old Testament where Israelites are expected to learn and meditate upon the Law.

18 You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, … 19 Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.  20 Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates… (Deut 11:18–20, cf. Josh 1:8; Ps 1:2; Ps 119:1–16)

This carries through in two different streams into the New Testament.  Firstly, the Law is encountered as part of a larger body of Old Testament scripture, with the Prophets and other writings.  Knowledge of scripture is more modelled than explained in the New Testament, being implicit in the New Testament’s frequent quoting of the Old, and more so in its even more frequent allusions, which expect the reader to pick up references.  (How many Old Testament references can you find in the Book of Romans?)  But the later New Testament especially exhorts “the public reading of scripture”, “rightly explaining the word of truth”, for “teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (1 Tim 4:13; 2 Tim 2:15; 3:16).

Secondly, the New Testament’s focus moves to understanding Christ in a pivotal way, since the relevance and significance of the Old Testament is modified for Christians by his life, death, and resurrection, and the specific kind of universal hope that this creates for both Jews and gentiles.  This is a particular theme of Paul’s letters:

7 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.  8 What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.  I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ – the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.  10 I want to know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.  (Phil 3:7–11)

Do you understand all the things that Paul is excited about knowing about Christ in this passage?  Of course there are teaching roles in the Christian church who have the responsibility of explaining all the basics to you, and in a world of infinite books and resources, you may take a little while to find things at the level you’re at.  But the aim should not be in doubt:

For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10 so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.  (Col 3:9–10)
And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.  (Phil 1:9–11)

Curiosity and wonder – the things that clearly drive worship and joyful service for Paul – are a good place to start in understanding faith; and that starts with Christ.


  • What is one thing you know about Christ that astounds you?  Does everything important in Christian understanding in some way connect back to Christ?  Can you list three things you are curious about?
  • What are your answers to the three questions given above:
    • Can you answer common questions about faith?  Which ones need attention?
    • Does lacking understanding – of anything – lose you credibility or respect in some areas of life?
    • Can you help or serve people through your knowledge or aptitudes?

2.b.   Building a culture of understanding

A number of character traits should help sustain a Christian quest for wisdom and understanding.  There’s honesty, most obviously, but there are also at least two others in major supporting roles.  Impartiality should keep us free of prejudicial biases.  Humility should free us from self-absorption, to better serve others.

Teach me good judgement and knowledge, for I believe in your commandments.  (Ps 119:66)

You scoff at our philosophy as though living by it were irrational, but it teaches us self-control, so that we master all pleasures and desires, and it also trains us in courage, so that we endure any suffering willingly; it instructs us in justice, so that in all our dealings we act impartially, and it teaches us piety, so that with proper reverence we worship the only living God. (4 Macc 5:22–24)

  • A Jewish writer from the period between the Testaments describes the martyrdom of an elderly man called Eleazar, who says these words to a gentile ruler.  How does this compare with your own sense of what properly spiritual wisdom means?  What is different, whether by its presence or absence?

2.b.i.   Being truthful and rejecting falsehood

Condemnations of lying run all the way through scripture, from opportunistic deception in Eden (Gen 3:1–7), to “taking the Lord’s name in vain” in the case of perjury (Ex 20:7), through to “all liars” being cast into destruction at the final judgement in Revelation (21:27; 22:25).  Lying is repeatedly and particularly connected with the nature of Satan, who “When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44).

In the Old Testament law, this features prominently in concerns for the perversion of civil justice, quite apart from wider social propriety:

You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.  (Ex 20:16, The Ten Commandments)
You shall not spread a false report.  You shall not join hands with the wicked to act as a malicious witness.  (Ex 23:1)
you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another.  And you shall not swear falsely by my name… (Lev 19:11–12, 19)

Slander, the marriage of malice and falsehood, attracts particular condemnation (Matt 15:18–20; Mark 7:21–23; Eph 4:31; Col 3:8; 1 Pet 2:1, among others).  And likewise gossip, the preference for sensation over truth (Rom 1:29; 2 Cor 12:20).  So it should not seem strange that honesty becomes a foundational matter in Christian ethics:

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another.  (Eph 4:25)
We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practise cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God.  (2 Cor 4:2)

But notice how this is phrased.  “Putting away falsehood” is different to just “being honest”.  I can be honest but mistaken, since honesty considers my knowledge and intentions.  But if I want to avoid falsehood then I have to take precautions against being mistaken in the first place.

Which of you desires life,
and covets many days to enjoy good?
Keep your tongue from evil,
and your lips from speaking deceit.  (Ps 34:12–13; cit. 1 Pet 3:10)

General Christian principles should keep us alert to the risk of falsehood.  We should know to suspect ourselves.  “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse – who can understand it?”  (Jer 17:9).  We should, similarly, invite correction by others that we trust.  “A scoffer who is rebuked will only hate you; the wise, when rebuked, will love you.”  (Prov 9:8; cf. 17:10).

But three specific themes, from Jesus and Israelite law, appear to offer useful guide-rails for avoiding falsehood.  (1) We should not try to artificially inflate our truthfulness with oaths, but rather rely on lifelong honest character.  (2) We should confess wrongdoing rather that conceal it.  And (3), where possible, we should have penalties that help communicate its unacceptability in our communities, and encourage restitution for any advantages gained by deception.  Each of these points bears looking at more closely.

Rejecting oaths. In scripture ‘swearing’ covers oath-taking as well as profanity (on which, see Not repaying insults (§3.a.vii)).  Taking an oath was once a way of saying something like “may God strike me dead if I do tell you the truth.”  This persists in our legal system when someone ‘swears on the Bible’ upon entering the witness box.  In early modern times, a common concern about atheism in society was that atheists would be unable to make such pledges.  Ironically, Jesus himself had long since rejected the thought.  Rather than have people swear by God, or heaven, or the Temple, or the gold in the Temple, he said:

Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.  (Matt 5:37, cf.  vv.33–37, cit. James 5:12)

Oath-taking tries to give some of our words an extra, higher, level of truthfulness.  Denying an accusation with profanities can make the denial seem more indignant and credible.  But instead of artificially inflating our truthfulness, Christians ought to simply cultivate an honest character, so that our normal speech is trustworthy in itself.  As with the other themes of Matt 5, this strengthens the standard of honest testimony the law expected, and turns it more sharply inward.

Confession. Lying is the sin that protects other sins, and shields a person from the consequences of their sin’s discovery.  Confession dismantles this whole scheme.  It shuts down the tendency to deny wrongdoing or escape accountability.  Turning from dishonesty allows us to more quickly come to terms with our other actions.  It prevents us from glossing over them, even to ourselves.

When any of you sin in that you have heard a public adjuration to testify and – though able to testify as one who has seen or learned of the matter – do not speak up, you are subject to punishment.  … When you realise your guilt in any of these, you shall confess the sin that you have committed (Lev 5:1, 5).

Penalties and restitution. The use of false weights and measures in commerce was called an “abomination” in the Old Testament (Prov 20:10; cf. Lev 19:35–35, Deut 25:13–16).  The point of a deception is often to seek an advantage, polish the resumé, massage the numbers, ‘get in front’ of the story, ‘stay on message’, and so on.  When advantages were gained by fraud, the expectation of Old Testament law was that they would be paid back with interest (Lev 6:2–5), and that malicious lies would meet stricter penalties: “So shall you purge the evil from your midst” (Deut 19:18–19).  These were aspects of Israel’s civil law, but their applicability to Christian ethics – which just as much demand repentance – ought to be self-evident.  A standard for an Israelite king in the Psalms may also have some relevance to Christian politics today:

No one who practices deceit shall remain in my house; no one who utters lies shall continue in my presence.  (Ps 101:7)

  • What kinds of dishonesty, falsehood, or misrepresentations have you seen from Christians or Christian organisations, whether privately or publicly?  Have you seen it confessed and repented from?
  • Does the media or the political groups that you follow invite correction, and issue prominent retractions?  If they didn’t, could you convince them that they should?  What effect do you think it might have if they did?
  • In what ways can Christians pass on falsehoods without realising it?  What precautions should be normal for us?  Has the internet helped more with checking information than with spreading false information?
  • Can you think of examples or lessons in scripture about insincere ‘spin’ or disingenuous PR tactics?  – ducking the issue, changing the subject, avoiding the question.  Do you see this in Christian communities?

2.b.ii.   The objective focus of impartiality

Partiality and favouritism are the acts of judging others differently in spite of their equality before God.  God does not judge people in these ways: he can’t be bought off, he isn’t impressed by appearances, isn’t fooled by lies or secrets, he made and knows us all.

There is no partiality with God.  (Deut 10:17; 2 Chr 19:7; Acts 10:34; Rom 2:11, 10:12; Gal 2:6; Col 3:25; Eph 6:9)
who shows no partiality to nobles,
nor regards the rich more than the poor,
for they are all the work of his hands… (Job 34:19)

There are two dominant and representative examples of partiality in the Old and New Testaments.  The first features those Jews and Christians who favoured the wealthy over the poor (among many examples: Deut 24:14–15; Amos 5:10–13; 8:4–6; 1 Cor 11:20–22); or vice versa (Lev 19:15; Ex 23:1–8), especially in courts of law.  The second features those who favoured Jews or gentiles, whichever was their group, over the other (e.g. Acts 10:34, Rom 2:11).  These kind of double-standards are in every case rejected in the strongest language.  Notice how James in particular sees partiality as the very opposite of loving your neighbour as yourself:

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?  … You do well if you really fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”  But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.  (James 2:1, 8–9)
If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile.  (1 Pet 1:17)

There are many reasons for partiality and favouritism.  The wealthy and the powerful can easily create the expectation of favours or rewards.  Indeed, Roman society encoded exactly this as a system of patronage.  And they are well-placed to offer straight bribes to officials if that fails.  But ethnic and religious partiality, like that seen between Jews and gentiles in the New Testament, is more subtle, more complex, and probably much more common.  But also, people may enjoy ethnic and class divisions.  Read here what Paul says about the split between the rich and poor in Corinth, where the well-off at the Lord’s Supper would let others go hungry:

In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval. (1 Cor 11:8–9)

It’s not always easy to detect sarcasm in writing, but the alternative, that Paul really thinks they need divisions for the sake of God’s approval, makes no sense.  Rather, he saying of course you’re splitting into factions; how else will you feel superior? Something deep in human nature is in love with the feeling of superiority.  But imitating Christ should free us of any such need to go one-up.

We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some of those who commend themselves.  But when they measure themselves by one another, and compare themselves with one another, they do not show good sense.  (2 Cor 10:12)

At several points in scripture, we see people coming to terms with their own partiality, favouritism, or partisanship.  I mentioned Paul’s own zeal earlier, and the Parable of the Good Samaritan (§2.a, §1.c.i).  But think also of Israelites in exile, realising foreigners and eunuchs could become faithful Jews (Isa 56:3–8), or the religious and wealthy in Israel condemned by Amos for mistreatment of their workers, and told to fear judgement for it (Amos 4–5), or Peter’s vision of the sheet lowered from heaven, after which he said “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean” (Acts 10).  People who realise God really is impartial have to reconsider what they think of others.

What does God’s impartiality mean for our thinking and speaking?  Most obviously, it means that we must never implicitly favour our own social groups – our social class, our race or ethnicity, our region or demography – nor think to ourselves that God does.  It sounds obvious when we say it as bluntly as that, but partiality is among the most deep-seated of all human reflexes.  Unavoidably, we have interests, prejudices and perspectives that might interfere with our reasoning minds, even when we know that people are all equal.  However, we can recognise and discount these biases, or take measures to catch and eliminate them.  We can ask impartial people for their views, or knowledgeable people with no personal stake in the issue.  We can read a range of views, including opposing views.  One common word for taking steps to get outside of our own interests and perspective is objectivity – finding ways to overcome the subjectivity and narrowness of vision we were all born into.

The one who first states a case seems right,
until the other comes and cross-examines.  (Prov 18:17)

Of course, such impartiality is not ‘natural’.  Something like the modern phenomenon of ‘echo chambers’ appears in 2 Timothy, as the tendency, even, like an itch, the compulsion, to seek out agreeable voices to the neglect of others.  Notice how the image of an involuntary physical craving was also used for ‘tasty’ rumours (§2.b.i).

For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires… (2 Tim 4:3)

✻ ✻ ✻

As far as is possible we have to work out God’s perspective, be impartial, reject prejudgements, hear both sides, and form right conclusions.  One practical test for such impartiality would be to see, for any matter on which you take a side, whether you could fill out a letter-sized piece of paper with the following headings, and be confident the people on the other side would agree that you had represented them fairly.  Or better still, ask some of them to check your work, or even do the same in reply.

Both of us are saying…
I am saying… You are saying…
I am NOT saying… You are NOT saying…
NEITHER of us is saying…

This kind of table can also be used to understanding what two sides each want or don’t want to happen.  In each case, the more items you can sort into the top and bottom row, the more common ground you now have to cooperate on.  An exercise like this may help with consciously stepping outside of your own perspective in a conflict, and also create some accountability for mutual understanding.


  • How does partiality relate to prejudice, and impartiality relate to fairness and objectivity, as these terms are generally used in society?
  • Does the media or the political groups that you follow – or your church – model impartiality and objectivity?  How would you try to convince them that they should?
  • Think of some contentious issue on which you take a side.  Can you explain the range of ideas that exist on the other side?  Can you say which version of their position you think is strongest?  Can you say which ideas are fringe, and which represent everyone on that side?  If not, what has kept you from understanding them?
  • Do you speak with the people on the other side, or only about them?  Do you encourage them about the things you hold in common, before disagreeing on the others?

2.b.iii.   The outward focus of humility

We have seen by now how rejecting falsehoods and striving for impartiality should help protect us against foolishness, simple-mindedness, and immaturity.  A third line of defence that we find emphasised in Christian scripture is humility.  This protects us from the foolish overestimation of our own wisdom, and the inability to admit when we’re wrong.  It focuses our gifts of education or intelligence outward, for the benefit of others.

Humility is sometimes thought of as low self-esteem or a sense of inferiority: the tendency to put yourself down, or to focus on your failings, neglect your gifts, and generally pretend to be a less capable or significant person than you actually are.  But that is very different from the model of humility we find in Christ:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.  Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave [or servant], being born in human likeness.  (Php 2:3–7)

As God in the full capital-G sense, Jesus has power, status, rights, and privileges that no human ambition or conceit could ever imagine.  Yet he does not rely on these, or demand them, because he is interested in serving:

the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.  For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves?  Is it not the one at the table?  But I am among you as one who serves.  (Luke 22:26–27)

In Philippians 2:3–7 (quoted above) Jesus’ humility was mostly explained by what it was not.  It was the absence of self-assertion, and a disinterest in his own legitimate status.  As Rick Warren has put it, Christlike humility is “not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.”  Humility is a person unencumbered by their own significance, and so, better able to appreciate and serve others, feel what they feel, and seek their good.  It happens almost automatically when we’re not distracted by ourselves: not keeping scores or propping up our self-esteem.  Humility is evidence of generally loving others.

Humility affects much more than the way that we think; but it should certainly affect this too.  There is plenty in scripture about the dangers of intellectual pride:

do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.  (Rom 12:16)
Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.  (1 Cor 8:1)
Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight (Isa 5:21).

… which is as we would expect.  Our natural intelligence should never be a source of shame or pride for us, nor should the circumstances of our upbringing, insofar as that affected our education.  These things were not within our control, they were not moral choices we made one way or the other.

Thinking today about humility as a way of thought will usually lead to the topics of epistemic humility, the willingness to question our own abilities and conclusions, and negative expertise, the awareness of common missteps in those areas of learning we understand well.  However, we don’t find these ideas discussed under the heading of humility in scripture; rather they more closely relate to the bombast or conceit of foolish people, as we encounter that in the Old Testament wisdom books (§2.a).


  • In your experience does humility come more easily to the accomplished or the unaccomplished?
  • Can you name a genuinely humble person that you know, and say how you recognise this quality?  What reveals it?
  • What’s an issue or idea on which you’ve changed your mind in your lifetime?  Can you say by what steps that change occurred?
  • What does Jesus’ humility tell you about God’s character?  What would it look like, as it will in God’s kingdom, for everyone to be like that?

2.b.iv.   (Journalism?)

Titles in brackets are topical digressions or asides; article continues at When does not learning become a problem? (§2.c).

Let’s try applying these principles of wisdom, understanding, truthfulness, impartiality, and humility (see above) to a public issue.  How do we read the news?  You probably know Christians who think that the news media has an anti-Christian bias, and you can probably think of news sources that have a political bias, whether for or against your own views.  How do we identify good news, or distinguish news from propaganda?

Western nations are usually democracies, and while this doesn’t guarantee good government, it does mean bad governments can be replaced.  For this to work voters must understand the issues which affect them, and vested interests of all kinds must be subject to investigation and reporting, whether these are governments, businesses, or public institutions.  This is the traditionally understood role of journalism in society.  News reporting isn’t necessarily journalism; it may only aim to be entertainment or opinion.  However, journalism is easy to identify: there are numerous published sets of ethical standards for journalists, representing a common professional ideal.  Typically these say that journalism is factual reporting in the public interest, which follows established standards of verification, independence, and accountability (‘VIA’).  Each of these terms contains a number of commitments.

Factual Reporting.  Journalism strives for neutrality and objectively.  It clearly separates reporting from analysis or opinion writing.  It does not omit important perspectives, but is fair and balanced.
In the Public Interest.  Journalism covers anything affecting public life in society, but especially tries to uncover and expose misconduct.  It balances newsworthiness against ethical concerns such as privacy or anonymity.
Verification.  Journalism names and quotes its sources, unless it also states why a source’s identity is being protected.  It investigates and challenges the claims being made.  It gets all parties on record in their own words, especially by giving a right of reply to accusations.
Independence.  News organisations may have an editorial perspective, and are usually a commercial enterprise, but the news reporting is kept independent of those concerns: it reports “without fear or favour”.  Journalism discloses real, potential, or perceived conflicts of interest, especially if they are political or financial.
Accountability.  Journalism follows published professional and ethical standards; it responds to ethical questions about its reporting; and it publishes prompt and prominent corrections when it makes mistakes.

News reporting developed in Europe after the invention of the printing press in the 1600s most significantly through great increase in public literacy that occurred in the 1800s.  Because it emerged from societies with substantial Christian influences, we should expect some overlap between Christian and journalistic standards of behaviour:

  • Truthfulness (§2.b.i) is implicit in factual reporting and verification; and in scripture, truthfulness and justice are further linked by impartiality (§2.b.ii).
  • An awareness of human fallibility and susceptibility to corruption is represented in journalistic concerns for independence and accountability.
  • Human equality and public service (see love and care, §1.c), as well as the common good (see §3.c.ii), seem to underlie its commitment to the public interest.

Consequently, Christians should feel a broad sense of concord with journalistic ideals.  Churches, and Christian public figures, who should invite and appreciate correction and accountability (§3.b.iii), ought to appreciate the role of journalism in this respect.  If we find ourselves objecting to news reporting, we should first ask whether it is failing normal journalistic standards; and we should offer correction and support in helping news organisations better reflect these ideals.  And of course, we should subscribe to, and promote, news services that do provide good journalism, and challenge those who do not.


  • Do you think journalism could be an especially Christian vocation?  Why or why not?
  • Has the news you follow won awards for journalism or investigative reporting?
  • Can you pick two news sources you follow that come from different perspectives?  (If not, just pick two out of the BBC, Al Jazeera, the Guardian, or Fox News.)  Do these identify their journalistic standards, and invite and respond to corrections?  If not, look up the SPJ Code of Ethics,1 published by the Society of Professional Journalists, and see if you can work out if they follow it.

1 https://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp

2.b.v.   (Conspiracy theories?)

Titles in brackets are topical digressions or asides; article continues at When does not learning become a problem? (§2.c).

There are many different kinds of conspiracy theories, but they follow the same general pattern: “Powerful people have been working together to keep a big secret, something explosive, but ordinary people have started asking questions and working out what happened.”  If a conspiracy theory is true, it matters greatly.  It says that powerful people are abusing their power, usually harming and always deceiving others.  Christians should be angry at the evil and the cover-up; we should expose the guilty, and speak out for the victims.

Speak out for those who cannot speak,
for the rights of all the destitute.
Speak out, judge righteously,
defend the rights of the poor and needy.    (Prov 31:8–9)
Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.  (Eph 5:11)
Test everything; hold fast to what is good.  (1 Thess 5:21)

The many passages in scripture that support advocacy and justice apply equally to the exposure of cover-ups.  It is suggestive that, under Old Testament law, refusing to bear witness to a crime was also a crime.

When any of you sin in that you have heard a public adjuration to testify and – though able to testify as one who has seen or learned of the matter – does not speak up, you are subject to punishment.  (Lev 5:1)

So conspiracy theories have a powerful and legitimate appeal to a normal Christian (and normal human) instinct for justice.  It doesn’t hurt, either, that amateur sleuthing is absorbing, rewarding, potentially useful, and lots of fun.  Of course, this doesn’t always end up serving the cause of truth and justice.  Conspiracy theories of many kinds are a byword for paranoia, for becoming difficult to understand or relate to, for insults and antagonism, and for disrupting and dividing people, including friends, families and churches.  These are things we’ll talk about more when we ask how Christians should speak; see Listening and speaking (§3). But what if someone recognises that those tendencies are inconsistent with Christian faith, and tries to avoid them – but still finds a certain conspiracy theory compelling?

If I’m a Christian,
and I’m investigating or promoting a conspiracy theory,
how should I do so,
given how Christians should think?

As a useful shorthand, let me refer to three different approaches to conspiracy theories.  We might be most concerned with solving a puzzle rationally, raising awareness through activism, or simply provoking reactions and outrage.  In each case we assign a different priority to truth and expertise:

Three Approaches to Conspiracy Theories
Rational.  We care about truth and (mostly) respect established expertise. We want to bring our case to the attention of relevant researchers, academics, technologists, and so on, who we think will vindicate it, and who have the experience, knowledge, and standing to do so authoritatively.  In our minds we’re a network of researchers, solving one of the world’s great mysteries.
Activist.  We care about truth but (mostly) don’t trust the experts to provide it. We think most experts are getting it wrong – perhaps intentionally – so we’re taking our case directly to the public.  Though we try to feature other experts that authorities don’t want you to hear.  In our minds we’re grass-roots activists, blowing the lid off a shameful and secret agenda.
Sensational.  We don’t care about truth, this is entertainment or manipulation. We’re willing to believe and say the worst about certain groups of people.  If it’s true, all the better, and of course we let people believe it’s true, but the main thing is to keep a flood of stories coming, to keep getting the reactions we’re after.  In our minds we’re making drama, propaganda, or comedy.

A single conspiracy theory might have people who take each of these approaches.  A single individual might be a rationalist on their best day, and a sensationalist on their worst; or they might pose as rationalists while passing along every sensational tale they can find.  But they will have a particular approach at any particular time, with implicit stances on truth and expertise.  Having by now answered the question ‘How Should Christians Think?’  with the five themes of understanding, wisdom, truth, impartiality and humility (UWTIH, rhymes with ‘ooty’), we can now apply these to conspiracy theories.

Understanding (§2.a).  Conspiracy theories, at their best, are focused on knowing.  There’s a mystery to be solved, and evidence to sort through.

  • Motivated Reasoning.  It requires a lot of focus and effort to investigate a complex hypothesis.  We have to consciously take that side, and spend time thinking through all the possible ways to reach the answer we’re trying to verify.  Conspiracy theorists can be very good at motivated reasoning, and will consequently discover lines of thought that casual observers will not.  But if we focus only on proving the theory, we can overlook concerns, correctives, or critiques that run in the other direction, even things that are obvious to others.  That is to say, if we lack impartiality we will soon lack understanding too.
  • Dismissing Expertise.  Whereas the simple neglect learning, fools actively despise it, and both resent the superior understanding of others.  We should be hesitant about dismissing or despising expertise, especially if it becomes a reflexive response to criticism or difficulties (see §2.a.v).
  • Losing Perspective.  The concerns about the ‘simple’ that we previously saw in the book of Proverbs reappear as concerns for the ‘immature’ in Paul’s letters, and the later New Testament.  One of the qualities of this immaturity was the loss of perspective or priorities.  A Christian should realise that, even if a conspiracy theory is true, or likely true, pursuing that understanding or advocacy may be a distraction from things that matter more, or a detriment to them.

Wisdom (§2.a.ii).  A conspiracy theorist hopes to see past popular misunderstandings; to not be taken for a fool, as they fear everybody else has been.

  • Foolish Conceit.  As seen above, foolishness carries a natural conceit that overestimates its own intelligence and learning, and dismisses the so-called insights of the so called ‘wise people’.  Conspiracy theories say that we have special insight, and that most others, including the the so-called experts, are wrong.  Because of this similarity, conspiracy theories, regardless of whether they are right or wrong, should be disproportionately attractive to foolish people.  “What sorrow for those who are wise in their own eyes and think themselves so clever” (Isa 5:21, NLT).  So if we protect ourselves from foolishness – be self-critical, respect wisdom and understanding, cultivate humility – this will also protect us from building our intellectual self-esteem on our participation in conspiracy theories.  This will leave us better placed to evaluate them.
  • Dividing Communities.  Note how when Paul talks about divisions in the church in Rome, which involved gentile or Jewish superiority, he urges “everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgement, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned” (Rom 12:3).  If our conspiracy theory leads us into any kind of antagonism; see §3.c.vi, then we can readily divide and disrupt our friendships and families, churches, communities and societies.  We may end up chasing “stupid and senseless controversies [that] breed quarrels” (2 Tim 2:22–23).  “The Lord hates” – emphasis added – “a lying witness who testifies falsely, and one who sows discord in a family” (Prov 6:19; ‘family’ may also be translated ‘community’).
  • Destructive Cynicism.  If conspiracy theories proliferate, they can cause exactly the kind of injustices they are ideally trying to expose.  The institutional pillars of western societies – democracy, rule of law, education, expertise of many kinds, and journalism – can all be weakened by cynicism and mistrust.  If this happens, then conspiracy theories can actually serve the powerful and the corrupt by undermining the exact institutions that exist to hold those powerful people accountable.  Among a population, cynicism can stop people expecting any better from their institutions or leaders.  Though hoping to have “brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:52), conspiracy theories can unintentionally do the opposite.

Truthfulness (§2.b.i).  Like understanding, truth is one of the aims of a conspiracy theory.  This correlates with the need for Christians to avoid falsehoods of all kinds, including lazy self-serving assumptions and tasty rumours.

  • Slander and Strife.  If we make conspiratorial accusations and are wrong, then we sin.  We become slanderers (Matt 15:18–20; Mark 7:21–23; Eph 4:31; Col 3:8; 1 Pet 2:1), blending malice and falsehood together, and sowing discord.  If we sin in this way, we will have done so by lacking judgement or harbouring ill will toward others, so there is much at stake.  Conspiracy theories inevitably make serious accusations against people we don’t personally know.  Because God is impartial, and those people, whomever they are, are our equals before him, and known to him and loved by him no less than we are, we must take care not to become “judges with evil thoughts” (James 2:4).
  • Sincerity.  We must speak with sincerity, invite and appreciate correction, regret errors, and apologise promptly for mistakes.  We should not try to artificially inflate our credibility, but should confess dishonesty and make restitution for any advantages gained by it, whether consciously or inadvertently.  If we become involved in a conspiracy theory, we should value questions of truth over reputation, and so, should readily admit mistakes and learn.  We should therefore favour rationalist approaches over merely activist ones, and flatly reject any that are sensationalist.  Living out these values will quickly identify whether any group inclines toward rational or sensational approaches to conspiracies.

Impartiality (§2.b.ii).  We must reject biases, including favouritism and corruption, or the self-serving prejudices of class and ethnicity that we especially find opposed in the New Testament.  Impartiality may be difficult to maintain when trying to investigate or expose the wrongs of a specific group.

  • Double Standards.  The conspiracy theory may hold its own ideas to a lower standard than the ones it is critiquing.  But this is what fools do: “The simple believe everything” (Prov 6:5), rumours are tasty (Prov 18:8, 26:22), and some with “itching ears” accumulate “teachers to suit their own desires” (2 Tim 4:3).
  • Hear Each Side.  “The one who first states a case seems right” (Prov 18:17).  A person getting involved in a conspiracy theory may not know to second-guess themselves unless they’ve already been wrong on something big and had to stop and think about how they went wrong.
  • Speaking With Adversaries.  A Christian commitment to showing others their fault in any dispute means speaking directly to the people with whom we have any grievance, both privately and in community (Matt 18:15).  Speaking face-to-face guards against many traps: simple ignorance, unrestrained partiality, or unexamined prejudices.  While conspiracy theories tend to focus on remote and inaccessible enemies, we should always try to arrange face-to-face conversations over disagreements.

Humility (§2.b.iii).  Christians must always follow Jesus’ example of choosing to serve others, over our natural tendency to seek status and honour for ourselves.  We can understand “all mysteries and knowledge,” and still be nothing, if we don’t have love for others (1 Cor 13:2).

  • Intellectual pride.  “Do not claim to be wiser than you are” (Rom 12:16).  All the normal dangers of intellectual pride can attach to belief in a conspiracy theory, whether it’s right or wrong.  Perhaps, given the sense of ‘secret knowledge’ involved, and that no-one else is seeing what we see, the risks are substantially higher.  The danger will be highest if we are not recognised for our intelligence in other areas of life, and come to depend on the conspiracy theory for this plank of our self-esteem, or the community that gathers around the conspiracy as the place where we have significance and receive validation.
  • Accountability.  Many of the dangers associated with conspiracy theories can be addressed by making ourselves accountable to people we trust, and asking them to tell us if they think we’re being unduly credulous, or wasting our time, or causing unnecessary friction with others.  If we won’t “submit to one another out of reverence to Christ” (Eph 5:21), then our involvement in the conspiracy theory is likely affecting our faith or humility.

  • Do you personally see conspiracy theories (matching the definition used here) causing problems in society or in churches?  What are the best and worst ways that you’ve seen anybody respond to them?
  • How many conspiracy theories can you think of in two minutes?  Can you rank them by how much they tend toward rationalism, activism, or sensationalism, at least as you encounter them?  On a scale of one to ten, how plausible to do find each?
  • Are there Christian (orthodox or otherwise) movements or theologies that you find especially prone to conspiratorial thinking?  What are the links you see?
  • Do you think Christians involved in conspiracy theories – or those concerned by them – would commit to the standards of thought and speech described in this article so far?  What do you think would be the effect of this?

2.c.   When does not learning become a problem?

So far we have built up a list of five values that should drive and guide Christian learning, whether individually, in community, or as we interact with wider society.  These have been drawn from Christian scripture and so represent a specifically Christian approach to learning.  This list can be stated positively or negatively:

Understanding vs Simple-mindedness, immaturity, ‘senseless controversies’
Wisdom vs Foolishness, blabber, resisting correction, conceit
Truthfulness vs Dishonesty, falsehoods, rumours and gossip
Impartiality vs Prejudice, bias, inequality, injustice
Humility vs Pride, arrogance, disinterest in others

This will conclude our study of learning and the values that support it.  Before going on to consider how Christians should speak and listen, we should ask two basic questions about how we can apply these values.  Firstly, when does neglecting these values become morally wrong?  I’ll provide a summary of the preceding sections in the form of a personal inventory of questions.  And secondly, to consider a simple concrete problem, how can we apply this to a disagreement over a fact?

2.c.i.   Some practical questions – Part one

Simple-mindedness does not automatically disqualify a person from Christian faith, and understanding comes with pitfalls and responsibilities of its own.  Still, there is an unavoidable expectation in Christian scripture that we will seek understanding and wisdom, will benefit by it, and be kept from many errors and troubles.  Section §2 of this article can be boiled down to a list of questions offering a personal inventory.  See if you can recall the parts of scripture which addressed each issue:

Do I seek wisdom and understanding? (§2.a).  Do I pray for these qualities?  Do I have a mental picture of what they would mean for me, or to what purpose I would like to be putting them?  Do I talk up ‘childlike faith’ as a way to avoid learning?  Does zeal without knowledge lead me into avoidable errors?

Am I simple-minded, or immature? (§2.a.i).  Do I neglect to learn?  Are there issues I wish I knew about, or could speak about, or which would be helpful to myself or others, but I never make an effort to understand them?  Do I tend to believe everything, to be easily led, or to otherwise display a certain gullibility that leads to embarrassments and corrections every now and then?  If I feel shame for being ignorant on some important issue, do I endeavour to learn?  Do I know how much learning would be sufficient for my needs?  Do I show immaturity in faith, even after a long time as a Christian?  Do I have that special conceitedness that goes with not even knowing how much I don’t know?  Do I feel a craving for obscure disputes, comparable to those about words, doctrines, genealogies, or law, that are mentioned in the New Testament?  Am I unstable and easily swayed or misled, say by random teachings, cultural movements, or self-styled philosophies – and does this typically create conflict in my communities – envy, slander, and suspicions?  Am I mired in quarrels and controversies?  Do I have trouble distinguishing good and bad ideas or actions, and can I sensibly discuss this with others?  Do I have a clear sense of perspective concerning what matters in life and faith, that stops me going off on tangents?  Fundamentally, do I think of knowledge and understanding as a part of godliness, see it leading to maturity in Christ, and strive toward it?  Does my church encourage or challenge me to learn, and offer help?

Am I foolish? (§2.a.ii).  Do I despise learning, dismiss education, and resent expertise?  Do I rubbish people of understanding or wisdom, or assume their understanding is false, empty, or lacking in ‘common sense’?  Do I do so without speaking directly with them, or understanding what it means to have their level of accomplishment?  Am I a mocker and a scoffer, one who take pot-shots first and asks questions later, if at all?  Do I babble and like hearing my own voice in groups?  Do I invite and value correction?  Or do I react against it?  Do I fail to learn from my own mistakes?  Do I lack control of my anger, bring shame and grief to others, or suffer ongoing disgrace?  Am I hard to persuade of the need to grow in understanding, or accept correction?  Do I despise and reject correction, being sure my own way is better?  Do people despair of me even listening, let alone ever changing?

Do I try to build a culture of understanding? (§2.b) – both by seeking, modelling, and encouraging understanding, and cultivating the qualities that support it?

Do I reject falsehood? (§2.b.i).  Do I commit myself to honesty?  Do I go further and actively reject falsehood, whether negligent or inadvertent?  Does a tendency toward slander or gossip lead me to repeat untruths?  Do I see truth as an obligation to my community, and a way we commend ourselves to others?  Do we cultivate an honest character, so that our regular everyday speech is implicitly trustworthy?  In particular, do we cut our losses by refusing to lie as a cover for other wrong-doing?  When we say something false, do we confess and correct this, both to those we told the falsehood to, and those we heard to from?  Going beyond confession, do we return and repay all profits or advantages that we may have gained through falsehood, especially in business or politics?

Do I seek to be impartial? (§2.b.ii).  Excepting the special love required for family and other close connections, do we treat groups of other people equally?  Do we favour rich over poor (or vice-versa), and our own ethnic, cultural, geographical, demographical, professional, or religious groups over others?  Or do we reject bias, prejudice, and corruption in absolute terms?  Do we fail to “love our neighbour” when they belong to the wrong group?  Do we prefer to give aid or seek justice for those like ourselves, or those that we approve of?  Do we speak and think the best of one and the worst of the other?  In extreme cases, do we frankly enjoy having differences, so that we can feel superior?  Or rather, do we give up the need to compare ourselves with others?  Have we come to terms with our natural tendencies toward partiality, favouritism, or partisanship?  Relating this to how we learn or judge issues: Do we make sure we really hear both sides, and reserve judgement?  Do we know that we could explain both sides of any conflict we must judge, or on which we take a side?  Would that apply to serving on a jury, arbitrating a dispute between church members, deciding for whom to vote, evaluating a purported conspiracy, or campaigning against some injustice?

Am I able to show humility? (§2.b.iii).  Do I want the same heart as Christ?  Do I lower myself for the sake of serving others?  Do I associate with people lower than myself, and reject self-importance?  Or do I look instead to my own status and reputation, whether real or imaginary?  Are we proud, or on the contrary, ashamed of our natural intelligence.  Are we just managing whatever gifts we may have as investments we’ve received and must account for?  Can we readily admit when we are wrong, and gladly accept correction?  Or are we ‘puffed up’ with knowledge, claiming to be wiser than we are?


  1. Which of these questions require your attention?  Are there others that stand out in your mind as important?
  2. Would it be desirable, and if so would it then be practical, to require these five qualities – understanding, wisdom, proactive truthfulness, impartiality, and humility – from anyone in public life who claims to represent Christians or who seeks support from us?
  3. Are we generally known for these qualities?  In any ways or places that we are not, how should that be addressed?

2.c.ii.   Oh no!  A disagreement about a fact!

Suppose we are involved in some disagreement in which we can answer Yes to the following questions:

  • Áre we committed to these five Christian principles of understanding, wisdom, truth, impartiality, and humility?
  • Do we agree that our disagreement is a simple question about an external, objective fact?

As we have seen, scripture requires understanding and wisdom, and so opposes simple-mindedness, immaturity, or foolishness.  This is part of Christian faith.  Principles that help support these aims include rejecting falsehood, maintaining impartiality, and thinking with humility.  I’m going to assume that Christians are committed to these principles of rationality.

I’m also going to assume that important disagreements contain questions of fact, and that these can be identified, separated out, and considered on their own, and that it’s important that we do so.  When people try to deceive us (or anyone else), they present false facts.  We can absorb false facts from our upbringing and environment, and can get attached to them.  Unless we’re very careful, we are all vulnerable to believing what seems reassuring or sensational, what makes us look good, what confirms what we already know, or justifies the causes we are already committed to – and this allows falsehoods to slip though.  But we can recognise our vulnerabilities to these misunderstandings and work around them.  And while falsehoods typically arrive in groups, we can usually isolate important or crucial facts and consider them individually.

It may help to load into our minds a few examples of these kind of issues: Consider a controversial issue on which you agree with most people you know, and another on which you disagree or hold a minority opinion.  Think of politics, science, health, history, public events, or your understanding of scripture.  For both issues list several objective facts that are contested.  These must be specific statements about the external world that could be examined publicly and impartially by anyone.  Are these facts that both sides agree to be crucially important, but understand differently?  Do you know what facts the other side would put on their list?  For a fact to matter, it should be something that would change your understanding of the issue if you were wrong.

So, with these examples in mind, how do we approach a single disagreement about an individual fact?  We can’t always avoid misunderstandings, disagreements or conflicts, but we live inside a knowledge tradition that goes back thousands of years, and represents God’s nature and character: we value understanding, wisdom, truthfulness, impartiality, and humility.  Pursuing this constellation of virtues and rejecting all of their opposing vices should lead to agreements about simple matters of fact.  It it doesn’t, then we should take that as a sign that at least some of us are getting at least some of these things wrong.  The following questions might help to work through the issues.

What do we need to know?

If human beings have to “get understanding,” and “seek wisdom”, that means we don’t automatically have these things.  They exist outside of us, until we make the effort to acquire and internalise them.  Ignorance is where we all start out in life.  Humility should mean there is no shame in having or admitting ignorance, only in neglecting or despising learning, being puffed up with conceit, or claiming to know more than we do or to be wiser than we are.

Who can tell us?

Are there popular level books on the subject that are generally agreed to give a fair and complete overview of the subject at hand?  Is there a book in which two or more sides debate this issue – perhaps like Zondervan’s Counterpoints series in theology?  Do we know people with relevant expertise, or who work in the relevant field?  If there is an apparent disagreement between experts, is that because we’re at the leading edge of human knowledge, or is just that different groups are appealling to different experts?  What is the real balance of opinion among people with qualifications, especially if they have no stake in one answer or another?

What are our weaknesses?

Are we genuinely seeking understanding?  Are we unaware of common reasoning errors, such as logical fallacies?  Are we unable to be impartial, or to acknowledge any bias we have?  Can we say in advance what it would mean for us if the other position were shown to be completely true – and if we can’t answer that, then are we capable of being objective about the claim?  Are we unable to focus on one issue of fact without diverting onto other subjects, or attacking our opponents?  Will we repent if we are our found to have relied on false information, or misrepresented a source, or subject, or opponent?  Are we seeking to win, and does his prevent us learning?  Do we quote experts selectively?  Do we lack humility?  Would it be fairer to say that we’re lobbying much more than thinking?  Are we listening for something to pounce on, while ignoring the rest?  Can we acknowledge when we don’t know, admit when we’re wrong, and appreciate correction?  Would our pride be wounded by being corrected, contradicted, or having our mistakes exposed?  Do we enjoy controversies and quarrels for their own sake?

Can our community help us?

Is there an impartial person we would trust to arbitrate between us?  (Notice the expectation of arbitration in Christian communities in Matt 18:15–20 and 1 Cor 6:1–8.)  Failing that, can we debate the issue before an audience to help provide some accountability to understand the issues impartially?  Can we argue both sides?  Can our community provide accountability if we do not adhere to Christian standards of thinking or speaking?


There are two debaters, Alice and Bob.  Alice takes the podium, makes her argument.  Then Bob takes her place, but before he can present his counter-argument, he must summarise Alice’s argument to her satisfaction – a demonstration of respect and good faith.  Only when Alice agrees that Bob has got it right is he permitted to proceed with his own argument – and then, when he’s finished, Alice must summarise it to his satisfaction. (Robin Sloan describes debates held by the Long Now Foundation, quoted in Alan Jacobs, How to Think, ch.4)
  1. What sort of subjects would benefit from this kind of debate in your own church or community?
  2. How often do you hear discussions where the basic facts can’t even be agreed, or people talk past each other without listening?  What do you think are the main reasons why this happens?
  3. It isn’t possible to stage a debate for every disputed fact.  Assuming the cooperation and goodwill of both parties, what might help ensure understanding and impartiality in the kind of discussions you most often have?

3.   Listening and speaking

We have by now considered how Christians should think, under the headline theme of learning.  Of course, how we think affects both the substance and manner of our speech.  What we are inside will be revealed in what we say and how we say it.

You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.  (James 1:19–20)

I’ll first look at which Christian expectations are universal, which are mostly focused on Christian communities, and which are mostly focused on our public life in society.  These topics will address various kinds of antagonism, and lead naturally into the practical question of polarisation in modern life.

I have called this section ‘listening and speaking’, in parallel to the preceding section’s ‘learning and thinking’.  Except for that quote from James 1 (above), listening doesn’t appear very often in Scripture as a moral expectation.  However, it is implicit in the reconciliation process in Matt 18:15–17, turning entirely on whether we listen to those we have wronged when they try to speak to us about it.  And, stepping back and looking at the bigger picture, it is required by many or most of the Bible’s interpersonal ethics, especially loving, understanding, persuading, reconciling, bearing one another’s burdens, mourning and laughing together, and making peace.  These are the ethics that most threaten our antagonisms, and are in turn most threatened by them.  So we must be quick to listen; it precedes good speaking in just the same way that learning precedes good thinking.  The alternative to good listening is unresolved conflict.  Paul encapsulates this beautifully when, anticipating a visit to Corinth, he seems to worry that they might invent the internet:

I fear that there may be discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder.  (2 Cor 12:20)

3.a.   Universal Christian norms

Some aspects of Christian speech and thought are focused in a special way on our relationships with other Christians.  Others, on relationships with those outside, and the society in which we live.  But some, like love, are simply universal, and we look at these next.  These include what I will call ‘soft virtues’ like gentleness and patience, “blessing not cursing”, and being generally serious in the way we speak.

3.a.ii.   Kindness, gentleness, and patience

Some of the virtues of Christian speech and thought have an unobtrusive quality that is easily overlooked.  It will be worth observing just how frequently and consistently they are repeated in scripture.  These could collectively be called ‘soft virtues’, as they stand in opposition to the hard and sharp-edged qualities of pride, dominance, self-assertion, or violence.  The two that stand out the most – or the least, depending on how we see them – are gentleness and patience.  Each one could be considered an expression of the more fundamental quality of kindness.

the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  (Gal 5.22–23)
pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.  (1 Tim 6:11)
Who is wise and understanding among you?  Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom … the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.  (James 3:13,17)

Notice how easily your eyes can pass over gentleness and patience in these passages.  Yet these and similar qualities are continually emphasised as basic components of Christian character.  Paul’s understanding of history is grounded in God’s “kindness and forbearance and patience” (Rom 2:4).  When he mentions the qualities that have reflected creditably on himself and his fellow ministers in hardship, he emphasises, “purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love” (2 Cor 6:6).  He writes to Timothy, “you have observed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness,” (2 Tim 3:10).  This long list of qualities collects into two main groups:

Gentleness. Tenderness, kindness, mercy, peaceableness, generosity, willingness to yield. Patience. Forbearance, long-suffering, hope, steadfastness, being slow to become angry.

Jesus describes himself, in apparent contrast to the doctrinaire and legalistic, as “gentle and humble in heart,” and so able to offer rest (Matt 11:29).  Church leaders are to be “gentle not violent” (1 Tim 3:3).  Those concerned with their appearance could more profitably cultivate “a gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Pet 3:4) – a more sustainable beauty.  Titus is urged to teach Christians “to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarrelling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone” (Tit 3:2).  Recalling again the trees and their fruit (see §1.c), this begins with our thought life:

whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.  (Phil 4:8)

It’s difficult to sum this up any better than Paul does in his first letter to the church in Thessalonica.  He recalls how he and his companions were mistreated in the neighbouring region of Philippi, and declared the gospel boldly to them in spite of great opposition.  “Even so we speak,” he writes, “not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts” (v.4).  Conflict and suffering can harden people in their heart, and can be used to justify harsh or outspoken behaviour:

But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.  So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.  (1 Thess 2:7–8)

This whole network of attitudes and affections is closely connected with humility and fellow-suffering.  We have considered humility in relation to learning, already (§2.b.iii).  Typically we pick it up by having been wrong, or having done wrong, or made mistakes we didn’t previously recognise, or of which we were once rather proud.  Correction and regret punctures our natural arrogance and self-righteousness.  Going through hardships, especially in community, similarly eats away at self-sufficiency, and builds up the common feeling of empathy and compassion.

Blessed be the God … who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God.  (2 Cor 1:3–4)

These kind of ‘soft virtues’ cannot be used to deny the ‘hard virtues’ of holiness and reproof.  Nor can the hard virtues be used to deny the soft ones.  It’s not as if we can only choose one or the other.  We each are biased to either pursue or avoid conflict and it is tempting to select our ethics on that basis.  But all virtues should be our social defaults, our consistent characteristics, the oil that keeps the machine running smoothly.  They should proceed from imitating God and Christ.


  • How do these qualities compare with how ‘tolerance’ or “not being a jerk” is understood in your society?
  • Have you seen Christians favour hard virtues over soft ones, or the other way around?  Do you think that kindness, gentleness, and patience can look different for different groups or types of people?
  • Suppose someone dismisses kindness, gentleness, and patience as “worrying about people’s feelings.”  She suggest that “people these days” just need to toughen up.  What is your response?

3.a.iii.   Seriousness, but with good humour

Gravity comes with any authentic knowledge of God; we’re accountable for both ourselves and others, down to the level of our attitudes.  So we find plenty of exhortations to be serious, sincere, earnest, and genuine.

this is our boast, the testimony of our conscience: we have behaved in the world with frankness and godly sincerity… For we are not peddlers of God’s word like so many; but in Christ we speak as persons of sincerity, as persons sent from God and standing in his presence.  (2 Cor 1:12; 2:17)
in your teaching show integrity, gravity, and sound speech that cannot be censured … (Tit 2:7–8)

Such seriousness goes with being temperate and prudent (Tit 2:2), and contrasts with being double-tongued, a slanderer, a drunkard or a miser (1 Tim 3:8,11).  Those who struggle to be serious are simply immature:

Like a maniac who shoots deadly firebrands and arrows,
so is one who deceives a neighbour
and says, “I am only joking!”  (Prov 26:18–19)

I will assume that this is obvious and well understood.  But it can be over-emphasised if we end up humourless or ascetic to the point of harshness, or to the neglect of empathy, and a few Christian movements have gained a formidable reputation of this kind.  However, if seriousness means a grim life devoid of all joy or vibrancy, that in turn seems to contradict the expectation of joy and rejoicing that receives far more space in scripture (see especially Phil 4:4; 1 Thess 5:16; the book of Psalms).

Emotionally mature people, in contrast, manage to be sober and serious on the one hand, and funny and joyful on the other hand, in degrees appropriate to every situation.  They manage this without any sense of contradiction.  So how funny and serious should Christians be?  How well are we able to laugh at ourselves, appreciate life’s ironies, and hold life’s joys and sorrows together?

The expectation of joy in the Christian life offers a presumption that laughter is healthy and natural.  However, we can make a stronger case than that from the presence of humour throughout the Old and New Testaments.  We are a long way from the culture of the Old Testament in particular, so we shouldn’t expect sitcoms or stand-up, nor suppose that wordplays will survive translation.  Still we run across a range of humour in the Bible.

Anyone who’s ever preached an Old Testament narrative knows how easily this is drawn out.  “Do I lack madmen, that you have brought this fellow [into] my presence?”  (1 Sam 21:15).  Idolatry and foolishness are satirised in various ways, like Elijah mocking the priests of Baal (“perhaps he is asleep” 1 Kings 18:27); or Isaiah sending up reliance on an idol that a person’s own hands have made (Isa 44:9–20).  Proverbs mocks drunkenness and sloth (“they beat me, but I did not feel it.” Prov 23:34–35; “There is a lion in the street!” Prov 26:1ff).  Paul uses sarcasm, as we have seen; Jesus, hyperbole; Proverbs, absurdity.  It’s not always sophisticated: King Eglon was very fat and was murdered in a toilet (Judges 3), and, since he was an enemy, this was probably related as a kind of literal toilet humour.

The need to keep both seriousness and good humour together is perhaps best reflected in Scripture’s overarching sense of dramatic irony.  This is a theatrical and literary term for the incongruity that is felt when the audience knows more than the characters.  This can be deadly serious or amusing.  When a movie villain’s plan collapses and they receive their comeuppance, it may be both at once.  Dramatic irony describes the whole biblical picture of human existence.  We don’t know everything, or even everything we need to know.  But the audience does, and in fact knows the ending.  We only learn some things too late, whereas with others, we couldn’t have changed them with foreknowledge.  We have to go on making choices, though, as best we can.  It’s a matter of life and death, but it’s also the root of all humour in life, to say nothing of all empathy and compassion.

Christians should recognise our finitude and frailty, taking the good and the bad together.  We should “Rejoice with those who rejoice,” and “weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15), never losing sight of either life’s tremendous weight or lightness, gravity or levity, and tragedy or comedy.  Focusing selectively on one side or the other is a kind of immaturity.

3.a.iv.   Right judgement, without condemnation

We will shortly discuss some uncomfortable passages on admonition and reproof as they apply to Christian community; see Exhortation and reproof (§3.b.iii). These depend upon a general expectation that Christians will be concerned to make good moral judgements, as do other things which follow.  So it will helpful at the very start to clear up the question of what Christians should “judge” and what they should “not judge”.

On the one hand, the necessity of admonition and exhortation imply that moral judgements must be made correctly and expressed clearly.  This is borne out by a range of very clear statements about the need to judge:

Stop judging by mere appearances, but make a right judgement.  (Jesus, John 7:24)
For what have I to do with judging those outside [the church]?  Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge?  God will judge those outside.  “Drive out the wicked person from among you.”  (1 Cor 5:12–13)
When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints?  Do you not know that the saints will judge the world?  And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases?  Do you not know that we are to judge angels – to say nothing of ordinary matters?  If you have ordinary cases, then, do you appoint as judges those who have no standing in the church?  I say this to your shame.  Can it be that there is no one among you wise enough to decide between one believer and another… ? (1 Cor 6:1–5)

And on the other hand, we read “Do not judge.”

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.  (Matt 7:1)
Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.  (Luke 6:37)
Who are you to pass judgement on servants of [God]?  It is before [God] that they stand or fall.  (Rom 14:4)
So who, then, are you to judge your neighbour?  (James 4:12)

There’s no simple escape in saying that, perhaps, different Greek words have different meaning, but they all mean ‘judge’ in English.  The same words are used in Greek to both require and prohibit judging.  But the fact that the same words are used for judging isn’t necessarily significant.  Words have different connotations depending on how you use them and in what sort of context.  You ‘love’ your parents, siblings, boyfriend or girlfriend, spouse, pets, hobbies, favourite food, and so on, in significantly different ways, but you’ve never once confused them even though you had only one word for this.  Likewise, you can easily think of English sentences where ‘judging’ has good connotations, and others where it has bad connotations.  So how did Jesus and Paul hold these ideas together with the need to admonish?  Can we say whether a particular kind of judging is in view in these passages, and the hearer, or reader, is expected to understand that?  It seems that, on the whole, we can.

The passages that oppose judging usually suggest that some specific problem is in mind.  Notice especially here:

  1. moral hypocrisy (Matt 7:1–5),
  2. harsh or unforgiving condemnations (Luke 6:35–38),
  3. unnecessary quarrels (Rom 14:1–4), and
  4. wrong or malicious judgements, “speaking evil” of each other (James 2:4; 4:11–12),

It’s worth examining each of these in turn:

Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.  2 For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.  3 Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?  4 Or how can you say to your neighbour, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye?  5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye.  (Matt 7:1–5)

Here hypocrisy is in view.  By ‘a log in your own eye’, Jesus means a worse moral flaw than the ‘speck’ of dust you are denouncing in somebody else.  You are expected to judge yourself correctly and identify this.  In the parallel passage in Luke, mercy is emphasised:

35 But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.  Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.  36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.  37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.  Forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38 give, and it will be given to you.  (Luke 6:35–38)

Both Matthew and Luke say that not judging others results in not being judged.  This could, obviously, be pressed to far.  We couldn’t say that if someone committed many evils, yet refrained from ever judging anybody, then God would never judge them.  Rather the statement here in Luke seems to parallel the passages that say if we don’t forgive, God won’t forgive us.  If we are harshly condemning toward others, if we hold a legalistic sword over their heads, or if we indulge in the hypocrisy of double standards and judge them as we would not judge ourselves, we should not then anticipate God’s kindness, compassion, and mercy toward ourselves.  As recipients of moral generosity, we ought to be walking advertisements for all these qualities.

This is broadly characteristic of the “don’t judge” passages.  Paul in Romans adds a concern for divisive judgements on unnecessary matters:

Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarrelling over opinions.  2 Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables.  3 Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgement on those who eat; for God has welcomed them.  4 Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another?  It is before their own lord that they stand or fall.  And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.  (Romans 14:1–4)

Some of these apparent differences are quite straightforward: In the parallel sermons in Matthew and Luke, mercy is being commended, and hypocrisy condemned.  Judging of that kind has obviously little to do with moral exhortation or reproof.  In Romans 12–14, differences over disputable matters are not to be made into a reason for breaking community.  That’s quite compatible with opposing genuine moral hypocrisy, and need not be considered in detail.  In both cases we are reminded that we will ourselves be judged with mercy, and should therefore be careful not to be harsh in our own judgements.  In the relevant passages, James condemns schisms and speaking evil of each other:

have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts (James 2:4)
Do not speak evil against one another, brothers and sisters.  Whoever speaks evil against another or judges another, speaks evil against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge.  There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy.  So who, then, are you to judge your neighbour?  (James 4:11–12)

So there are some ways in which we should judge, and there are some in which we should not.  Which I think is what most people would say about way the judging anyway.  In scripture, the same words for judging apply to both, and we recognise the difference by the kinds of statement that are made, not just by the words taken in isolation.  We should value those judgements that are right and necessary, and especially those that are also kind and constructive.  And on the other hand, we should reject those judgements that lack these qualities, those that are hypocritical, are harsh to others, offer condemnations with mercy or forgiveness, are spuriously divisive, speak evil of our neighbours, or in any other way are malicious in heart.


  • Have you heard Christians quote the “judging” and “not judging” passages in a selective way?  What were they trying to argue at the time?
  • Is it always possible to make strong moral judgements without harshness, hypocrisy, or condemnation of the person rather than the action?

3.a.v.   (Love the sinner, hate the sin?)

Titles in brackets are topical digressions or asides; article continues at Keeping anger slow (§3.a.vi).

As we have seen that the New Testament expects Christians to make sound moral judgements §3.a.iv).  We will see presently that this requires us to morally exhort and reprove each other, to assess grievances between members, and keep Christian communities free of notoriety and hypocrisy (§3.b.iii).  All this assumes that Christians will make, discuss, and act upon moral judgements.  This is supported by clear statements expecting right moral judgements.  At the same time, there are prohibitions on judging, which as we have seen, focus on hypocrisy, a lack of mercy, or having a quarrelsome nature.  Accordingly, we should understand ‘judging’ to be a word with a range of meaning, whose sense in any individual usage will be obvious from the way that it is used – like ‘love’ in English, to give one obvious example.

The balancing act of maintaining clear and strong moral judgements – indeed, judgements that define communities – while also “not judging” has produced some distinctive phrasing in Christian language.  One approach is to separate judgement from “judgementalism.”  This has the merit of recognising that different kinds of judging must be in view, although it doesn’t offer much help in telling them apart.  A better approach has been to understand that condemnations should attach to actions and not people.  This is often expressed in the phrase, “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” comes which from an incidental comment in one of Augustine’s letters (“with due love for the persons and hatred of the sin”, Letters 211).

This idea meets criticism from two sides.  On one side, it offends those who, wronged by evils, want to withhold forgiveness, as if to bind wrong-doers always to the shame and condemnation of what they have done, and thus to socially punish them.  On the other hand, it offends those who dispute that the actions in question are really all that bad, or who find the term ‘sinners’ to be demeaning, condemning, or self-righteous.  C. S. Lewis described his personal history with this phrase, and how he came to hold the broadly traditional view, as follows:

I remember Christian teachers telling me long ago that I must hate a bad man’s actions but not hate the bad man: or, as they would say, hate the sin but not the sinner.  … I used to think this a silly, straw-splitting distinction: how could you hate what a man did and not hate the man?  But years later it occurred to me that there was one man to whom I had been doing this all my life – namely myself.  However much I might dislike my own cowardice or conceit or greed, I went on loving myself.  There had never been the slightest difficulty about it.  In fact the very reason why I hated the things was that I loved the man.  Just because I loved myself, I was sorry to find that I was the sort of man who did those things.
C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Still, in some circles, the perception persists that Jesus’ “Judge Not!”  is a universal prohibition on assessing other people’s actions in moral terms.  Jesus rejected hypocrisy, and God is our ultimate judge, so shouldn’t we “Love the sinner, and hate our own sin”, for example?  But it’s hard to think that Jesus restricted moral judgement to each individual when he also says: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you.  If they listen to you, you have won them over.”  (Matt 18).  How can there be reconciliation without recognition of an offence?  Or when he says “Do not be like the hypocrites” (Matt 6:5).  How can you do that without making moral judgements – what hypocrisy is, and what moral standards hypocrisy flouts, and who are in fact hypocrites, and what kind of similarity to hypocrites is being “like them”?

“Not judging” can be a way of ducking or deflecting moral questions.  I have elsewhere written fairly extensively on same-sex orientation, and whether same-sex relationships are recognised by God in that situation.  That discussion turns up at least two major examples of this issue.  On the one hand, some Christians saying “don’t judge” in respect of same-sex relationships decline to make substantial or biblical arguments; they’ll just say “that’s between them and God,” and “who are you to judge?”  They can point to any number of harsh and uncaring judgements that others make, and to hypocrisy and double-standards, and to condemnations made without commitment or community; and they rightly want to protect people from judgementalism or proverbial Bible-bashing.  We should encourage and share these concerns.  But the context of Jesus’ comments about not judging seem to already condemn wrong judgements, and wrongly motivated ones as well, without eliminating the positive necessity that we make right judgements instead.  The discussion they must have is whether orientation really does create a morally exceptional situation in biblical sexual ethics, and that’s more difficult.  On the other side, when their opponents say they want to “love the sinner, hate the sin” they are usually desiring to say that they don’t dislike the people involved, and are themselves hurt by accusations of bigotry.  But if they don’t acknowledge orientation, or that it could have moral implications, then they are ducking the central moral question being asked – at least when others say that orientation requires us to rethink whether such relationships are sins in the same way that those condemned in scripture were.  They too are taking a shortcut.  These questions are not the whole of either side of this issue, but they illustrate our common tensions with the “love the sinner, hate the sin” formula.  Instead of these shortcuts, we have to hold a number of convictions together:

  • If we have a conflict with someone, we have to ‘show them their fault’.  That means, if there are questions over whether something is in fact a sin, that should be diligently settled rather than dismissed or presumed.
  • We never under any circumstances suppose that a person is defined by their sin, or is inseparable from it.
  • We never accept continuing public immorality in the church.  This includes sexual immorality, equally applied to men and women.  But it also includes rage, greed, partiality, economic injustice, and many other issues that are quietly overlooked in communities that focus only on culturally approved boundary markers.

Holding these commitments together means that Christians should say: “Love the sinner, hate the sin.”  This is God’s basic stance toward humanity, and the basis of our individual hope.

3.a.vi.   Keeping anger slow

There are plenty of examples of righteous anger in the Old and New Testaments.  To pick out one that is often cited:

… Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who were selling and buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.  He said to them, “It is written,
‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’;
but you are making it a den of robbers.”  (Matt 21:12–13)

What is the reason for this display of anger?  Jews and gentile converts have travelled for weeks or months to attend one of the annual Jewish festivals and make an offering to God in the temple there.  But they are being scalped by profit-takers when they finally arrive, first when they need local currency and again when they go to buy the offering itself.  Presumably this scam has the approval of the wealthy priestly families (see “den of robbers”, Jer 7:11), and perhaps a general prejudice against gentiles plays a part.  The contrast with the passage Jesus quotes from Isaiah is stark:

And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, …
these I will bring to my holy mountain, …
for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.  (Isa 56:6–8)

Jesus looks at these pilgrims and sees the purpose of Israel’s existence.  Perhaps he links this with the promise to Abraham to bless all nations.  The traders in the temple see the same pilgrims as people who, having come so far, can be extorted without consequence.  The reason for his anger is clear.

However, while anger can be just and good, it can easily go wrong.  It “lodges in the hearts of fools” (Eccl 7:9) and “does not produce God’s righteousness” (James 1:20).  We’ll consider shortly how anger and insults are related, especially by the reflex accusation of foolishness (§3.a.vii).

Make no friends with those given to anger,
and do not associate with hotheads,
or you may learn their ways
and entangle yourself in a snare.  (Prov 22:14–15)
For as pressing milk produces curds,
and pressing the nose produces blood,
so pressing anger produces strife.  (Prov 30:33)

If anger is sometimes right and sometimes wrong, then it cannot be universally rejected or approved, but must be judged on its individual merits.  Anger is not always well justified, nor always kept under control.  We can notice three ascending categories into which anger may fall: feeling indignant at some wrong; feeling rage as our emotions go beyond our self-control; and feeling wrath, the intention to retaliate or punish.

Indignation, judgement, offence, grievance
What is the person’s path to reconciliation?  How could they make it right?  If this is not your hope then are you feeling enmity, revenge, or malice, rather than a righteous or justified anger?  Are you opposed to the person or to what they did?  Is this a grudge, a feud, or the hatred of a whole group of people?
Rage, fury, enmity, hatred, bitterness, resentment, malice, acrimony
Can you be objective or impartial?  Could you judge or arbitrate the matter fairly, or ask others to?  Or are you no longer self-controlled?  Did they take something from you?  Is your anger a cover for something else, like powerlessness, envy, grief, shame, jealousy, hatred, dishonour, or vengeance?
Wrath, vengeance, retaliation, punishment
Are you feeling wrath?  Must they be punished, paid back, smacked down, put in their place, or made an example of, and will you do it?  Must it happen right now?  Is the feeling so strong that you’re likely to lash out?  Are you then feeling fury, spite, or hostility?  Can you leave judgement to God or lawful process?  Far from wanting to overcome evil, have you in fact been overcome by it?

Problems can appear at every level here.  We might not be angry at a genuine moral injustice at all.  We might perceive some danger or wrong, but be mistaken.  Someone might have used our anger to manipulate or fool us.  We might lose control of our emotions, whether in the moment or habitually.  We might lose control of our actions and lash out to put someone in their place, whether by an act of violence or by endless lower-level strife in the form of slander, malice, enmity, or contention.  Or we might not lose control at all; we might embrace our anger as a way of life.  Clearly many do, and most of those will say its justified.

But how can anger be fairly judged, or impartially evaluated, when an angry person is just about the worst-placed to do this?  One consistent answer all throughout scripture is that anger must never be allowed to arise quickly.  Slowing down allows for good judgement, and keeps our emotions in check.

You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.  (James 1:19–20)
Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but one who has a hasty temper exalts folly.  (Prov 14:23)
But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.  (Ps 86:15, cf. Ex 34:6; Num 14:18; Neh 9:17; Ps 103:8, 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2.)

In slowing down our anger, we recognise our tendency to lose control of our emotions, or lashout in payback.  These are recognised as dangerous and deliberately paused.  Slow anger especially requires that we do not become habitually enraged or violent, or otherwise develop a ‘nasty temper’, where rage and wrath become reflexes.

Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.  … Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.  (Eph 4:26–27, 31–32)

  • What things ‘make’ you angry?  Does it feel good?  Do you think that, as human beings, are we hard-wired to react with anger?  Or is it rather a habit that we grant increasing control over us?
  • Do you ever see wrath expressed in other ways than through physical violence?
  • Can an angry person fairly evaluate their anger?  What would be the outward signs that a Christian was no longer in control of their anger?
  • What advantages does anger give a person, and what disadvantages?  Who benefits from its cultivation in society, and who suffers?  How would you adjudicate a dispute between two parties when one is angry and the other is not?
  • Are there Christian movements that are too angry or angry in the wrong ways?  Do others manipulate them into this state, or do they do it to themselves?  Correspondingly, are there Christian movements that are not angry enough at important evils?

3.a.vii.   Not repaying insults

There are a range of insults found in the Bible, of which people mostly remember Jesus launching a broadside against hypocritical religious leaders in Matt 23:

You blind fools!  … You snakes, you brood of vipers!  (Matt 23:17, 33)
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.  (23:27)

The runners-up would be Paul denouncing a Cypriot magician (Acts 13:9–10), or any number of the Old Testament prophets (Amos 4:1; Ezek 13:4).  Christians who use insults point to passages like these in their defence.

However, as we will see, Jesus and Paul also give us some strong and clear statements about rejecting insults.  The common refrain about ‘blessing not cursing’ is one obvious example:

bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you… (Luke 6:28)
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.  (Rom 12:14)
From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.  My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.  (James 3:10)

This raises some pointy questions.  Are they not taking their own advice?  Are not all insults the same?  Clearly, there are different kinds of speech that could be called insults.  A spectrum runs from correction, warning, and denunciation at one end, through to insults, impatience, and contempt in the middle, and on to rage, retaliation, and wrath at the other end.  Is there just a point at which they become a problem?

The big argument against insults comes from Jesus saying not to call people fools.  He mentions the Aramaic word rēqā for a worthless or empty-headed person, and then the Greek expression mōre, meaning “You fool!”  You know it as the English word moron.  Because the Bible likes to be difficult, this is the same word, in Greek translation, that he himself applies to Pharisees in Matt 23:17 (see above).  Why does he mention these terms of abuse in Matthew 5?

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.’  But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult (rēqā) a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool!’ (mōre) you will be liable to the hell of fire.  So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.  (Matt 5:21–25)

Jesus’ statement appears in a string of five statements of the form, “you have heard… but I say to you…”.  He moves (1) from prohibiting murder to prohibiting anger, (2) from prohibiting adultery to prohibiting its desire, (3) from urging vow-keeping to urging truth-telling more generally, (4) from pursuing only legal remedies (instead of revenge), to completely rejecting retaliation, and (5) from love for neighbour to love for enemies.  These statements both strengthen the demands of the moral law and require them in our thoughts and desires, fore-mostly, not just in our outward actions.

In the first of these statements he connects three seemingly related behaviours with murder: these are anger, insults (rēqā), and calling people fools (moré).  They are the kinds of strife that cause deadly violence, but their underlying problem is that they foster division; so he says “First be reconciled” (v.25).

This seems to build upon Psalm 4:4, which points to the same inconsistency of nursing anger at others while seeking forgiveness for yourself.  This conflict pops up several times in the New Testament (Matt 6:12, 14–15; Mark 11:25 and Luke 17:3–4).

When you are disturbed [or angry], do not sin;
    ponder it on your beds, and be silent.  Selah
Offer right sacrifices,
    and put your trust in the Lord.  (Ps 4:4, cf. Eph 4:26)

There’s a difference between calling out a real problem, and spraying off insults.  So there seems no contradiction between Jesus making strong rebukes of foolishness and hypocrisy while also prohibiting the kinds of spite and vitriol that promote discord.  There are of course many evils in the world at which we ought to be angry enough to take action; things at which God is also angry.  But God aims to reconcile and restore people, and so must we.  This is God’s nature and Jesus’ example.  This runs through all the other New Testament passages on the subjects:

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.  … Live in harmony with one another.  … Do not repay anyone evil for evil.  Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.  If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.  Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath … Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.  (Rom 12:14–21)
When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly.  (1 Cor 4:12–13)
When he [Jesus] was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.  … Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult.  On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.  (1 Pet 2:23; 3:9)
Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.  See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and through it many become defiled.  (Heb 12:14–15)

The frequency with which biblical sin lists focus on anger, malice, and slander should keep us alert to this problem.  This may be why Paul says to take care not to be tempted when reproving and restoring others:

They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice.  Full of envy, murder, strife, … they are gossips, slanderers, … inventors of evil, … foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless (Rom 1:29–31, cf. 1 Cor 5:8, Eph 4:31; Col 3:8; Tit 3:3; 1 Pet 2:2).
My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.  Take care that you yourselves are not tempted.  (Gal 6:1)

When Paul quoted the “Love your neighbour” passage in Galatians, notice what kind of behaviour he contrasted it with:

For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”  If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another (Gal 5:14–15).

While it is often necessary to critique people’s comments, character or behaviour, critique is what it must always be.  If someone lies, address the lie.  If they establish a pattern of lying, it is no longer an insult to call them a liar, though the aim of pointing this out still must be that they will change and make amends.  Insults are easy, satisfying, and self-affirming.  But they reinforce anger, hatred, contempt, malice, and fear.  Like physical violence, they dishonour human beings made in God’s image for perfection.  Maltreatment by others is no excuse for resorting to insults.

If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that?  But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval.  For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.  “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.”  When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.  (1 Pet 2:20–23)

A person who insults frequently, in rage, without humility, or self-control, or without care that they are not tempted, or to express contempt, or even without the justification of hoping for change, is not imitating Christ.  Their spirit and demeanour contradicts him.  It is especially difficult to see how insulting the intelligence of whole groups – such as putative “Libtards” or “RWNJs” on the internet – could ever be closer to love than it is to rage.  Even if an insult-prone Christian simply demonstrates misguided zeal, their actions should be privately and if necessary publicly distinguished from Christian conduct.  This article may be used for that purpose.

3.a.viii.   (Swearing?)

Titles in brackets are topical digressions or asides; article continues at Private life in community (§3.b).

Swearing is generally approved or disapproved reflexively without being much thought about.  For Christians, there are only a few New Testament references to swearing, and they provide only a few characterisations of the practice, and a few associations for it:

Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.  … Entirely out of place is obscene, silly, and vulgar talk; but instead, let there be thanksgiving (Eph 4:28; 5:4).
But now you must get rid of all such things – anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive [or filthy] language from your mouth (Col 3:8).

Swear words can usually be characterised as either profanities or obscenities.  Profanities take terms that others value highly, and demean them, or at least treat them as common (i.e. profane) or meaningless.  Profaning religious figures or terms is the most obvious example, as is sexual language when sex is considered a matter of dignity and privacy.  Obscenities, in contrast, use terms that others value so lowly as to think them generally unmentionable.  These include terms for death, decomposition, dirt, disease, excrement, or bodily fluids.  This includes sex, sexual desire or activity, and sexual body parts, when these things will be considered dirty, demeaning, or animalistic.

You can’t just make up swear words; they depend on common values, context and tradition for their force.  A term must must have been either venerable or execrable – it must have been taboo to someone – to have ever become a swear word.  However, these terms exist on a scale, where they move over time, and where there is wriggle room for pushing boundaries.  To take an obvious example, excrement is a common figure of speech indicating worthlessness (e.g. Phil 3:8, for a biblical example).  As a technical descriptor, like ‘dung’ or ‘refuse’, this gives no offence to anyone.  ‘Crap’ is swearing-lite, staying formally within the lines while still connoting the the more offensive term, somewhat like writing **** or $#@& in print.  All these terms have gone through historical changes; medieval monks, for example, used a few of the modern ‘big seven’ swear words as ordinary language.  The vocabulary of swearing is culturally constructed, but there is always a vocabulary of this kind, and it is always employed in the same general ways or with the same general intent.  It is the function and intent, not the changeable vocabulary, that we should understand to be the act of swearing.

Swearing has a few psychological effects.  Firstly, expletives overlap a little with oath-taking (§2.b.i) as an attempted guarantee of truth telling.  Swearing by God, or heaven, or whatever was considered sacred, was a way of adding weight to what you said, as if calling God to be your witness, or judge you if you were to lie when doing so.  Expletives and obscenities add extra force to affirmations or denials in a similar way, by projecting indignation: “It ******* is!”  “It ******* is not!!”  We saw Jesus reject oath-taking, requiring instead that we simply be known for our honestly.  Secondly, swearing may express pain or relieve tension, like screaming, but more self-possessed and self-asserting.  And thirdly, it may express group identity, especially if that identity involves an air of rebelliousness, or defines itself against the kind of people who might be concerned about swearing, construed as prudish traditionalism.  “Jesus Christ!” works as a swear word for each of these reasons: it is historically descended from the invocation of God or a god as a witness (“By Jove!”); it has the usual psychological effects; and it helps assert a non-religious identity within a social group.  All this is additional to the meaning that the term is given by its context and inflection.

Swearing is sometimes deprecated as in indication of low intelligence or at least poor vocabulary.  But while there are many examples of uneducated people swearing, there are also many counter-examples.  It is probably more accurate to say that it requires no necessary thought or articulation, although a pun or witticism may now and then use a swear word.  In an argument, swearing allows faster responses than from a person who worries about accuracy or self-control; it may be the verbal equivalent of chest-thumping.  Demeaning or insulting someone without swearing might require substance or wit, or at least adjectives and adverbs that mean something.  As an expression of personal feeling, it can’t be factually incorrect, whereas a person making a factual statement can easily overlay it with a emotionally charged expression of contempt by adding swearing.  This may involve ‘damning’, in the old sense of wishing or calling down evil on someone, even if this only puts them in their place in the swearer’s mind, or among their social circle.  So we might say that intelligent or educated people are simply better at controlling their language, or ‘being professional’ when they need to.

A general Christian argument against swearing is that it serves none of our purposes to transgress or violate other people’s social norms or values; it seems, if has any meaning at all, to express disrespect or at least disregard, and to distance us from them.  We don’t need its artificial authenticity, we don’t require its social conformity, and we bless rather than curse.  That is, we actively cultivate respect, honour, and self-control, and we deliberately avoid the angry, contemptuous or abusive statements for which it is best suited and to which it is historically and culturally inclined.  And we sometimes see a spiral where anger, contempt, and swearing can feed off each other, reinforcing those qualities.

However, the two most common kinds of swearing modify the ways that we might think about this: In cases of abusive language, is it the abuse and not the swearing, in itself, that is the problem?  And when people merely adopt a cultural norm, is there even conscious disrespect involved?  I’ll call these two levels ‘abusive’ and ‘cultural’ swearing.  At the higher level, swearing abuses or damns another person.  Its intention is hostile, and while the same actions can usually be performed without swearing, it is especially well-suited to the task.  While the abusive intent is clearly a larger issue that the language, swearing and abuse can reinforce each other as expressions of an underlying antipathy.  Swearing readily expresses and reinforces anger and contempt, emotions that Christians should be on their guard against.  It accentuates insults and so escalates strife – that is often its purpose.  Against all such actions or intents, it is underscored repeatedly in the New Testament that Christians are to bless rather than to curse, even when they suffer harm from their enemies.

At the lower level, merely cultural swearing may be considered too inconsequential to mention.  Empty, idle or silly talk – “just talking crap”, “just being ironic” – has no meaning and is mostly focused on stirring people or fitting in.  And expletives, which channel mostly negative emotions in forceful ways, and gain force from obscenity or profanity, are largely devoid of moral intent.  Mock abuse and cultural conformity can have some positive effects, which can be aided by swearing.  In Australian culture it is common to appear to insult friends, in order to indicates affection and understanding, since only friends can know with confidence that the insult is a gesture of familiarity.  Moreover, any words can be used with sincerity.  I heard once of certain Australian teens who had a conversion experience, who declared – and let’s imagine this happening on microphone at their new church – “JESUS IS ******* AWESOME!”  Which is high praise.

But even for these modest cultural goods, swearing isn’t necessary.  Even in its more benign forms, there are no positive reasons to develop these habits of thought or speech in the first place.  Seriousness, self-control, thankfulness, and blessing carry all of its strengths and none of its weaknesses, so should generally be preferred, and conformity or nonconformity are in themselves no justification for anything.  The abusive elements of swearing should be rejected absolutely, and the cultural elements deprecated as adding no value, whether or not they might lead to habits with more moral significance.


  • Are there kinds or uses of swearing that were not discussed here that you think are important to consider?
  • What percentage of the swearing that you hear fits into the kind of categories discussed here?  What is the total percentage you would consider good, bad, or indifferent?

3.b.   Private life in community

We have by now considered some of the universal aspects of Christian ethics, as they apply to our thinking and speaking.  These say how Christians ought to interact with anyone.  We will return to universals of this kind when we consider antagonism as a self-contained subject (see §3.c.vi and following).

Next, though, we’ll look at how we should think and speak within Christian communities.  This includes maintaining peace and unity, respecting freedom of conscience, and giving and receiving exhortation and reproof.  We have to make right judgements and avoid not only wrong judgements but judgements made in the wrong way or with the wrong motivations.

3.b.i.   Peace and unity

In the New Testament, unity has two primary dimensions.  There is the prior reality of being united to God and each other in Christ, and the consequent ethic of living peaceably together in mature understanding, especially rejecting factions, contention, and strife.  We notice these especially in Ephesians:

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.  4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.  (Eph 4:1–5)

Being created by, reconciled with, and indwelt by the one God creates a unity that should work its way out into our public life.  If you know the middle part of Eph 4, you’ll know it describes the purpose of Christian leadership, and talks about “speaking the truth in love” and, so, growing to maturity.  Inward unity has outward, visible signs:

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another.  26 Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27 and do not make room for the devil.  28 … 29 Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.  30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption.  31 Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32 and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.  (Eph 4:25–32)

It’s would be hard to write a better short summary of how to live in peace and unity through the way we speak and think; the themes covered here will appear throughout this article.  Speaking the truth to each other aims to end our anger rather than to increase it, to reconcile and forgive rather than to destroy or drive out.  There are many other references to unity and peace (e.g.  1 Cor 1:10, Col 3:13–14), but for a sustained discussion Eph 4 is hard to go past.  The list of attitudes to avoid is repeated elsewhere:

Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander.  (1 Pet 2:1, cf.  Col 3:8)

Gossip and rumours are especially opposed to peace and unity, more for their malicious intent than for their tendency to falsehood.  1 Timothy worries that young widows were especially prone to becoming “idlers, … gossips and busybodies” (1 Tim 5:13; compare 2 Thess 3:11 for idle men).  Gossip betrays confidences (Prov 11:13, 20:19) and perpetuates quarrels (Prov 16:28, 26:20).  Rumours are tasty (Prov 18:8, 26:22) – that’s how they work – but they mean valuing momentary sensation over peace and unity.  What we listen to in some way shows what we approve of, and what we are ourselves willing to speak.

An evildoer listens to wicked lips,
and a liar gives ear to a mischievous tongue.  (Prov 17:4)

  • How do you feel a concern for peace and unity should relate to freedom of speech?
  • Have you ever seen disagreement stifled in the name of peace, or conformity enforced in the name of unity?  What was the problem that led to this?
  • If you can relate it without identifying anyone, what was the most malicious rumour anyone ever tried to tell you, whether in person or through the media?

3.b.ii.   Freedom of conscience

When we have disagreements with other Christians, two principles seem especially important for maintaining community.  Firstly, we must allow that, even if we’re sure they’re wrong, they may be sure they’re right.  That is, they may be acting conscientiously, which God respects, and we must also.  And secondly, we must maintain a sense of perspective about what matters and what is and is not helpful to pursue, as discussed in The immaturity of simple-mindedness (§2.a.i), above.  These concerns relate, as conscientious difference is itself a way of maintaining perspective, showing patience and forbearance, and allowing that people who differ from us may be acting in goodwill.

Conscientious difference is a major theme of the book of Romans.  It is Paul’s practical answer to the fractures and divisions of the church there (Rom 14:15).  Similar thoughts appear in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10, and periodically in the later New Testament, as we will see.  Paul writes in Romans that some people have a ‘strong conscience’ which allows them to do things that those with a ‘weak conscience’ find objectionable.  In Romans and Corinthians the issues of difference (that he mentions) are that “Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables” (Rom 14:2, cf.  1 Cor 8), and “Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike” (14:5, cf.  Gal 4:10).  It is likely that these actions had differing religious significance for Jewish and gentile Christians: in 1 Corinthians we also find disagreements over eating meat offered to pagan idols (1 Cor 8:9–11; 10:27–29), and observing Jewish festivals and sabbaths (14:6).  Paul is not indifferent to these issues.  He takes a side and debates them at length elsewhere (1 Cor 8, Gal 5, Col 2).  But he would rather have community with those who think differently, than the lesser community of just those who agree.  Certainly he doesn’t want community destroyed by these disagreements.

Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths.  (Col 2:16)

The understanding of conscience that appears in the New Testament has a number of features that help us defuse sincerely held differences of opinion among Christians.  On the one hand God honours a person living by their conscience (Rom 2:15), it is perilous to ignore it (1 Tim 1:19), and a person may defend themselves by declaring that they have done right by it (Acts 23:1, 24:6; 2 Cor 1:12).  This was perhaps most famously expressed by Martin Luther at his heresy trial at Worms in 1521 CE: “I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.”

But on the other hand conscience is fallible.  The Roman Christians held opposite ideas for equally conscientious reasons, and legalistic minds are nothing if not conscientious.  Conscience may be sharpened by God or by moral development (‘perfect’ Heb 9:9, ‘purified’ 9:14), or numbed like scar tissue by disregard (“seared with a hot iron,” 1 Tim 4:2).  A conscience may be just plain wrong (‘defiled’ Tit 1:15, ‘evil conscience’ Heb 10:22).  Disturbingly for moral absolutists, Paul thought that on a matter like food being everywhere offered to idols, it was better for the sake of conscience not to know (1 Cor 10:27) – or better, at least, than always going hungry just to be safe.  So if conscience is not some kind of inspiration or revelation, why obey it?  The answer to this puzzle is to understand conscience as a person’s genuine internal understanding of right and wrong – a ‘witness’ (Rom 2:15; 9:1) – which gives them comfort or discomfort when they act accordingly.  A person who thinks something is wrong and does it anyway, commits sin; a person who thinks something is right may sin inadvertently, but may not be held accountable if they acted in genuine ignorance.  This does not suggest that moral ignorance will be the saviour of the world since everybody has significant moral knowledge.

The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.  (1 Tim 1:5)

Freedom of conscience is not a universal solution to disagreements, however.  Entrenched differences often include disagreements over whether a certain issue is in fact a matter of conscience, or whether certain views or actions constitute hypocrisy, or if, however conscientiously they are held, they depart from any recognisably Christian understanding of faith or morality.  So in practice, freedom of conscience means first asking the question of perspective: whether we indeed regard this as a secondary or disputable matter.  If not, then we turn to the various ways we address deeper and more substantial disagreements.  Two such principles include exhortation (§3.b.iii) and making right judgements (§3.a.iv).


  • What role does conscientious difference play in the public life of your society?
  • On what kind of issues do you allow that others may disagree with you and still be acting in good conscience before God?  What issues do you think are not helped by appealing to conscientious digferences?
  • Do you currently inconvenience yourself for the sake of another person’s conscience?

3.b.iii.   Exhortation and reproof

As Christians, we want to get better, and this means Right judgement, without condemnation (§3.a.iv). We are in any case obligated to, whether we want to or not, and a primary function of any Christian community is to make this happen.

You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbour, or you will incur guilt yourself.  You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.  (Lev 19:17–18)
Take care, brothers and sisters, that none of you may have an evil, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.  13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” so that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.  (Heb 3:21–13)

So we read to “reprove, rebuke, and exhort” (2 Tim 4:2), to “warn” (Col 1:28), to “admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” (1 Thess 5:14).

Whoever winks the eye causes trouble,
but the one who rebukes boldly makes peace.  (Prov 10:10)

The New Testament urges Christians to submit to moral accountability, to respect those who provide it, and to provide it to others, for personal growth, community, and conflict resolution.

“respect those who admonish you” (1 Thess 5:12)
If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault… (Matt 18:15)
All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, … I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.  (1 Tim 3:16–4:2)
As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest also may stand in fear.  (1 Tim 5:20)

In Western society over the past two centuries, this language of reproof has declined in usage.  This has happened for mostly obvious reasons.  Traditional moral authorities are distrusted, partly because of the kinds of judgementalism we will discuss here (Right judgement, without condemnation (§3.a.iv)).  In a pluralistic society, moral accountability cannot be compelled, but must be entered into by mutual consent.  Still, admonition happens.  People see themselves as morally good, they seek to improve themselves by cooperating with their peers (think of study or fitness), they react against wrongs and injustices, and their communities are necessarily defined by values and commitments that they share.  So the idea hasn’t vanished, even though the older terminology is not employed.  Sometime, objections to admonition are really disagreements about morals themselves.

A tension also exists between the biblical expectation that we have high moral standards, and express them in right judgements, and the equally biblical expectation that we do not judge others, most commonly understood as a concern for judgementalism (see §3.a.iv, §3.a.v, next).

In serious cases, admonition must extend to dealing with extreme examples of hypocrisy in the life of the church.

After a first and second admonition, have nothing more to do with anyone who causes divisions, since you know that such a person is perverted and sinful, being self-condemned.  (1 Tim 3:10–11)
“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.  If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.  16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.  17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.  (Jesus, Matt 19:15–17)
5 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife.  2 And you are proud!  Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and have put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this?  … I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons – 10 not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since you would then need to go out of the world.  11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber.  Do not even eat with such a one.  12 For what have I to do with judging those outside?  Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge?  13 God will judge those outside.  “Drive out the wicked person from among you.”  (1 Cor 5:1–2, 9–13)

Excommunication should serve the twin purposes of prompting the person excluded to think about their situation, and hopefully be reconciled again, and also keeping the Christian communities free of manifest hypocrisy.


  • How does this relate to the practice of dispute resolution, as you understand that?
  • Have you ever been in a situation where admonition was done either very well or very badly?  What makes it stand out in your mind?

3.c.   Public life in society

When Paul shifts his attention from speaking to Christians to speaking to others – though often on the subject of them becoming Christians – he emphasises praying for the way that he speaks: he wants to speak clearly, and he wants to speak boldly.  He also wants the church to be respected in society, insofar as that is possible without compromise.

These are the qualities that seem to directly affect how we speak in public life.  Paul wants “doors to be opened” for the gospel (Col 4:2), and for God’s word to “speed ahead and be honoured” (2 Thess 3:1).  He wants God’s spirit to speak through him.  But he also prays, and seeks prayer, that God would help him in the way that he speaks.  This serves to discount self-reliance, though it should not be pitted against the general necessity of study, understanding, meditation, and all else that is elsewhere given in scripture as the groundwork for speaking with wisdom and understanding (see §2).

3.c.i.   Quiet respectability

The New Testament never thinks about the possibility of Christians becoming a majority in society or wielding political power, at least not without the whole universe being remade first.  Paul’s politics can almost be summarised in the maxim ‘Try not to get arrested.’

But we urge you, beloved, … to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you, so that you may behave properly towards outsiders and be dependent on no one.  (1 Thess 4:10–12)
I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone, 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.  (1 Tim 2:1–2)

The prayer for the rulers in Romans 13:1–7 likely has a similar emphasis.  While it focuses primarily upon a God-ordained role for government in controlling crime, v.4 suggests that the Christians there are in some fear of their own government, and 12:17–21 has already warned them against retaliating against enemies.  Paul is saying, quite literally, to settle down a bit, and give no-one any basis for an attack.

In a similar way, Paul’s letters say to care about what people outside the church think.  Notice how he emphasises reputation in society when he writes that women, young women, and Christians who are slaves should behave in a good and socially creditable manner:

  • “so that the word of God may not be discredited” (Tit 2:5)
  • “urge the younger men to be self-controlled.  Show yourself in all respects a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, gravity, and sound speech that cannot be censured; then any opponent will be put to shame, having nothing evil to say of us.”  (Tit 2:6–8).
  • “so that in everything they may be an ornament to the doctrine of God our Savior.”  (Tit 2:10)

The respect of people who are not Christians, though it is certainly not everything, has significant weight in the New Testament.  As a Christian you ought to “conduct yourself wisely” and “behave properly” toward outsiders (1 Thess 4:12; Col 4:5).  Christian leaders “must be well thought of” by those outside the church (1 Tim 3:2), echoing Israel’s need for “wise, discerning and reputable” leaders (Deut 1:13,15).  Notice what he says about the consciences of others:

We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practise cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God.  (2 Cor 4:2)

All people have conscientious knowledge, which is to say, enough awareness of right and wrong to justly condemn us if we make conspicuous errors (see §3.b.ii).  Writing mainly to Jewish Christians, Peter urges, “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honourable” (1 Pet 2:12, cf.  3:16).  Paul, dealing mostly with Gentile Christians, says the same: “I always take pains to have a clear conscience before God and men.”  (Acts 24:16); and “Take thought for what is noble in the sight of all” (Rom 12:17).  In a diatribe – a dialogue with a hypothetical opponent – in Romans 2, he quotes the experience of Jews in Exile in Isa 52:5 and Eze 36:20, that: ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you’ (Rom 2:11, 23–24).  We should never prompt people to disdain God because of our unfaithfulness – including unfaithfulness in how we think and speak.

Do not let those who hope in you be put to shame because of me,
O Lord God of hosts;
do not let those who seek you be dishonoured because of me,
O God of Israel.  (Ps 69:6)

Christians can sometimes seem to act as if answerable to no-one but God.  We must indeed obey God rather than human beings (Acts 5:29; §3.c.v).  But there are two opposing errors to avoid here, and a lot of middle ground between them.  We should not be compromising for the sake of approval.  But equally, we should not give needless and legitimate offence, to the discredit of God and his gospel.


  • Christians in the Roman Empire faced political and social dangers that modern western Christians do not.  They also had no likelihood of changing their government or society, whereas, in a democracy, we do.  Does this change how we think about Paul’s concern for quiet respectability, or the metaphor of exile?
  • Why might Christians not try to win the respect of others in society, or not care whether they do?  Are there good and bad reasons for this?
  • Do we need rights, power, or influence to live faithfully or effectively as Christians?  How do these things help or hinder us?  Can we contribute to the well-being of society without them?

3.c.ii.   Seeking peace in exile

Christians involved in the modern culture wars may be tempted to antagonism by the fear that they are losing influence, and have less power to shape the world – or keep it in the shape they are familiar with.  In scripture, there are ways to live faithfully without holding political power, and this provides a moral framework we should bear in mind even when we do have it.  When Jeremiah wrote to the Jewish exiles in Babylon, conquered and deported by their enemies, he said, speaking for God:

seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.  (Jer 29:7)

In this verse the first and last uses of the word ‘welfare’ are shalom, a Hebrew term whose broad sense of harmony and thriving is reflected in the range of its English translations here: “peace” (KJV); “well-being” (NLV); “good” (GNT); “peace and prosperity” (NIV); “success” (NIRV).  Many Christians are able to quote a passage four verses later, about God’s “plans for your welfare (shalom) and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (v.11).  But along with that promise to the exiles, there was also the preceding instruction about how to live if we want to receive what is promised.

As we will see, Christians in the New Testament have an experience like being in exile, but without the prior experience of going into exile.  We have not previously lived in God’s kingdom or been banished or deported from it.  There is no concept in orthodox Christianity that preexisting souls have been delivered into the material world, whether for punishment, imprisonment, or for any other reason.  In every sense, we are born here.  But as we will also see, we are citizens of a different country, our culture and identity is foreign, and we hope to go ‘home’.  Still: since we are here in the meanwhile, and seemingly for the long haul, then how should we live?  This is enough of a parallel to make exile a strong metaphor for Christian living, and it appears as such in the New Testament.

The first letter of Peter is addressed to the “the exiles of the Dispersion”, meaning Jewish Christians outside Israel, dispersed across five provinces of what is now the northern half of Turkey, near the Black Sea (1 Pet 1:1).  Notice the social advice that he gives them, and what sort of involvement in politics and society is in view.

Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul.  Conduct yourselves honourably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honourable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge.  For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right.  For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish.  As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil.  Honour everyone.  Love the family of believers.  Fear God.  Honour the emperor.  (1 Pet 2:11–18)

Similar themes run through the New Testament.  While Paul doesn’t use the term ‘exile’, he writes, “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil 3:20, cf. Eph 2:19), and that we are “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Cor 5:20).  Peter writes, “in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home” (2 Pet 3:13).  When the author of Hebrews writes that Old Testament heroes “confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth” (Heb 11:13), this perhaps recalled the sentiment expressed by David even at the height of Israel’s monarchy:

For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you.  15 For we are aliens and transients before you, as were all our ancestors; our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no hope.  (1 Chr 29:14b-15)

While Jesus doesn’t use the term exile either, his teaching and three-dozen parables about the Kingdom of God carry the same primary meaning.  The kingdom will mean justice for all (the faithful servant, the ten bridesmaids), but not redemption and consolation for all (the narrow way, the sower); it is present but growing from tiny beginnings (the leaven, the mustard seed); it must be sought and prized (the pearl, the treasure hidden in a field; the lost sheep/coin/son, the weeds); it necessarily means love, forgiveness and care (the unforgiving servant, the good Samaritan, the sheep and the goats).

In all these pictures we are citizens of God’s kingdom, we represent it as ambassadors, and we don’t live there yet – rather it is present in us, here and now.  An attitude of exile in public life finds a middle path between either conforming to society or becoming combative towards it.  It fits the New Testament’s vision of holiness without separatism (§3.c.iv).  It does not require social or political power, and is unsurprised by opposition from such power.  Yet it can serve the common good, seek justice for others in public life, and in our circumstances, exercise responsible membership of a democracy.  It pursues both “peace with everyone” and also “the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”  (Heb 12:14, cf. 1 Thess 4:11).

Peter’s appropriation of the imagery of exile, and its themes as they appear in Jesus and Paul, is the New Testament’s closest approach to a political philosophy.  But it is not in itself a political philosophy.  On the contrary, it is almost a stance of indifference toward its social context.  This is perhaps explained by, on one hand, early Christianity’s complete lack of any access to the levers of power, and on the other hand, by the way all such power is relativised by God’s kingdom.

The great question that exile poses, as an approach to Christian living in our modern society, is what it means when Christians do have political power?  Do we reject it all as a temptation and distraction?  Or would that leave it to scoundrels and charlatans?  Do we take Israel as a theocratic model?  Should we be more like Israel’s prophets, condemning injustices?  Do we seek independence like the Maccabees?  Do we content ourselves with living as exiles, and seek nothing more.  Do we adopt and baptise the norms of the great powers of our time, be they Rome, Britain, the United States, or China?  Do we regard a modern softly-secular democracy – a neutral public square where the common good is decided on its merits – as the logical social fulfilment of Christian ideals?  Do we become a subculture, or special-interest group, demanding our rights?

I raise these questions not to answer them here – that would be a long undertaking – but to frame a more important question by them.  If we adopt a more substantial political philosophy, can we do so without sacrificing any of the benefits of exile, whether holiness without separation, or a fundamental commitment to Christlike character?  Political agendas, especially when they become polarised, can make Christlike thought and speech seem naive and unable to compete.  But do we judge Christian character by Christian politics or vice-versa?


  • How do you think “seeking the peace of the city” (KJV and similar) relates to the “common good”, as you understand that idea?  How many aspects of the common good can you list?  Can you think of some that are contested?
  • What range of political philosophies are held by the Christians you know?  For each, do their political convictions seem to affect the way they think and speak in public life?
  • What approach to civil or public life do you personally favour, and what do you find easy or hard to connect with the way you think Christians should think and speak?

3.c.iii.   Speaking clearly and boldly

When Paul prays for his own public speech in the New Testament, or requests prayer, he spells out the things that he most values in speaking.  Some of these things included opportunity and success (Col 4:2; 2 Thess 3:1).  But some of his requests concern the way he speaks.

Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains.  Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.  (Eph 6:19–20)
At the same time pray for us as well that God will open to us a door for the word, that we may declare the mystery of Christ, for which I am in prison, so that I may reveal it clearly, as I should.  (Col 4:3–4)

We’ll discuss boldness shortly.  First, though, Paul wants the right words and message, and to speak them clearly.  He relies on God, but that’s not to say he doesn’t know his own message.  It would be strange to separate the work that he himself does in understanding his message and audience from the work that he hopes God will do to make him more effective, as if he could only do one or the other.  That would be like praying for understanding (Eph 1:18; Col 1:9), and yet making no effort to learn; it would look like you didn’t want understanding at all.  Rather, he wants God’s help to speak effectively and persuasively to his specific audience.

Paul has some natural advantages in speaking clearly.  He is a Hellenistic Jew, a native of both Greek and Jewish cultures, and we see him switch modes now and then, for example between Romans 1 and 2, or in his prototypical speeches to Jews and Gentiles in the Book of Acts.  (A standard synagogue message is given in Iconium in Acts 13:13–52, while a standard message for a gentile and pagans can be found in Athens in 17:16–34, with a minor parallel in Lystra in 14:14–18.)  Greco-Roman pagans largely believed in judgement by the gods after death, and Paul picks up on this and other common ground in speaking to them; he extends them an invitation to discover God for themselves, and says God made the world as he did for that reason.  He doesn’t sound like an Old Testament prophet in Lystra and Athens, but he does by the end of his speech in Iconium.  Why the difference?  Paul speaks more sharply to people he thinks should know better.  Jesus, similarly, had most of his conflicts with the Pharisees, the group whose beliefs were the closest to his own (and later on, to those of the early church).  He holds them to a higher standard because of the common ground they share.

Paul gets into half the trouble that he does in Acts for trying to persuade and convince people, that is, for trying to speak clearly.  “Every sabbath he would argue in the synagogue and would try to convince Jews and Greeks.”  (Acts 18:4, cf.17:4; 18:13; 19:8–10).

Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others… So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.  (1 Cor 5:11, 20)

Reason, argue, discuss.  Persuade, appeal, entreat.  Christians should insist upon, and model, real understanding and communication.  There is a substantial difference between evangelism and mission, somewhat analogous to Paul’s distinctive messages to Jews and gentiles.  You can’t call people back to something they, as individuals, have never known – and that is the story of much of western society today.  Our situation is more like Paul in Athens than it is like Wesley and Whitfield, who set the template for modern evangelism during the Great Awakenings.  We are more like Hudson Taylor in China than Charles Finney in North America.  Paul uses persuasion and common ground, two things that are actively destroyed by “just preaching” in ignorance, with antagonism, or on the presumption of common ground that does not in fact exist.

As well as for clarity, Paul prays for boldness in speaking.  In scripture, speaking boldly usually means overcoming some reason for speaking carefully or not at all.  This can be good or bad.  Positively, it means not fearing the esteem, pressures, or threats of other people, and certainly not to the point of compromise.  It is daring and courageous.

The wicked flee when no one pursues,
but the righteous are as bold as a lion.  (Prov 28:1)
Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread of them, because it is the Lord your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you.  (Deut 31:6, and though the Pentateuch)
And now, Lord, look at their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness… (Acts 4:31, and through Acts)

Boldness is linked with righteousness in the Old Testament, and being filled with God’s spirit in the New, and this impresses with both authenticity and fearlessness in the face of real danger.  But boldness can also cross over into brazenness and bravado.  Arrogant slander can be bold.

The wicked put on a bold face,
but the upright give thought to their ways.  (Prov 21:29)

And even at its best, boldness shares all the limitations of zeal (see §2).  A person who speaks freely in the presence of those more accomplished, learned, good, or honourable than themselves displays boldness, but it is a kind of disrespect, presumption, or over-familiarity.  For Isaiah, God’s holy presence was a terrifying thought for a sinful person.  This is why it is so striking when Paul, without denying the ongoing need for reverential fear, writes:

we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him (Eph 3:12, cf. 2 Cor 3:12–13)

In sectarian circles, people who believe they’re being bold are often only fulfilling their own need to be ‘take a stand’ – or even be a martyr – with no consideration to how well they are making sense or getting through to anybody.  Paul, of course, would pray and work for clarity as well as boldness.


  • Have you ever seen someone argued into faith?  In your experience, what role does understanding usually play?
  • What would make you a clearer speaker?  What can you do, and what would God have to do for you?
  • What’s the boldest thing you’ve ever seen someone say?  In what way did their situation contrast with their response?

3.c.iv.   Holiness without separatism

As discussed under Right judgement, without condemnation (§3.a.iv), Christian communities are to be characterised by genuine (not merely assumed) moral superiority, both by the standards common to everybody (where they are right), and also by the extra standards of Christian piety.  Holiness means being separate, but scripture emphasises that Christians can’t somehow step outside of the social world that surrounds them.  Like maintaining admonition without judgementalism, this is a balancing act.  It is easy to compromise on holiness, but it is also easy to retreat into a safely insular and like-minded bubble.

The most engaging New Testament example of This refusal to compartmentalise our live in society is Jesus’ reputation for being friends with tax-collectors and prostitutes.  Somehow it neither renders him impure, except in reputation among those who scrupulously stayed apart, nor sees him denying that holiness matters.  Those people were proving more responsive than the religious professionals:

‘What do you think?  A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.”  He answered, “I will not”; but later he changed his mind and went.  The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, “I go, sir”; but he did not go.  Which of the two did the will of his father?’  They said, ‘The first.’  Jesus said to them, ’Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax-collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.  (Matt 21:28–32)

Does this mean the people in question were all former tax-collectors, and former prostitutes?  For some, presumably.  But more likely there was a gradual migration occurring, and Jesus’ continuing presence with them – while they were still doing sex work and tax fraud – was making that happen.

We find a similar pattern in Paul.  When he moves from Israel to the wider Roman Empire he shifts from a frustrated theocracy to an unequal pluralism.  Whereas Jesus spent time on the moral margins, the Greco-Roman world was morally ‘marginal’ in its entirety.  Paul writes that there is no way to step outside this.

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons – not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since you would then need to go out of the world.  But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber.  Do not even eat with such a one.  (1 Cor 5:9–11)

Having started churches in Thessalonica and Philippi that had few if any Jewish Christians, it is questionable whether he would even want to tell people to disconnect from their societies.  Like Jesus, he would perhaps say “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.”  (Mark 2:17; Matt 9:12; Luke 5:31).  His business is reconciliation, and in his life we see the same refusal to allow that holiness requires separation from our ordinary interaction with the world around us.  He takes this stance even though he also insists that holiness does means opposition to, and separation from, Christian and Jewish hypocrisy.

Separation.  However, there are a number of important passages on holiness that do use language that suggests being “separate” and specifically separate from “the world”.  This is a potentially large topic, but we can treat it well enough by picking out a few of its key points.  The most important is found in 2 Cor 6:18–7:1

14 Do not be mismatched with unbelievers.  For what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness?  Or what fellowship is there between light and darkness?  15 What agreement does Christ have with Beliar?  Or what does a believer share with an unbeliever?  16 What agreement has the temple of God with idols?  For we are the temple of the living God… (2 Cor 6:14–16).

‘Being mismatched’ (heterozugeō, v.14) is the verb form of a noun that refers to putting different kinds of animals into harness together, e.g. for ploughing (cf. Lev 19:19; Deut 22:10 LXX).  This and the parallels with partnership, fellowship, and agreement, suggest that binding agreements which tend toward compromises are to be avoided, such as business or marriage.  Paul then weaves a string of Old Testament passages together into a composite quote in vv.16b-18, nesting the demand of holiness between a set of promises:

“I will live in them and walk among them,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.       [cit. Lev 26:11–12; Ezek 37:27]
17 Therefore come out from them,
and be separate from them, says the Lord,
and touch nothing unclean;
then I will welcome you,      [cit. Isa 52:11]
18 and I will be your father,
and you shall be my sons and daughters,
says the Lord Almighty.”       [cit. 2 Sam 7:14; Isa 43:6]

The middle quote, from Isaiah 52:11, is part of a message to Jewish exiles returning to Israel from captivity.  An ‘unclean thing’ may mean something the Old Testament law declared unclean, such as foods or hygiene practices (Lev 5:2, 7:21).  For Paul, and the New Testament generally, while God’s holiness remains absolute, as do his promises.

Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and of spirit, making holiness perfect in the fear of God.  (2 Cor 7:1)

But only a subset of the Israelite law is binding on gentile Christians: idolatry and sexual immorality remain prohibited (note ‘flee’ in 1 Cor 6:18, 10:14), but the food laws do not (Acts 10:14,28; 15:19–20; Rom 14:14).  A returning Jewish exile would read ‘unclean things’ as utensils as well as idols, but for a gentile Christian there are no unclean foods – and more fundamentally, there is no separate nation isolated from the rest of humanity.  Paul seems to tap into an analogy the prophets sometimes made between unclean things and idolatry and immorality in general (2 Chr 29:16; Isa 64:6; Eze 8:10; 35:17,25).  Israel was to be both geographically and behaviourally separated from outsiders, but Christians are to be holy and present throughout the world.

The World.  The New Testament also contains some challenges that could be taken to mean we shouldn’t love our neighbours, or shouldn’t have non-Christian friends, or generally should stay aloof from the society in which we live:

Do not love the world or the things in the world.  The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world – the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches – comes not from the Father but from the world.  (1 John 2:15–16)
Adulterers!  Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?  Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.  (James 4:4; note the similar emphasis on cravings, greed, and pride in vv.1–8)

What does it mean, though, to ‘love the world’, and is that problem to be remedied (perhaps if only in some circumstances) by social separation?  ‘The world’ refers to several different things in the New Testament.  It is the whole kosmos, the “the heavens and the earth,” as distinct from the eternal God.  It is the present world as distinct from the world to come.  And it is the human world as distinct from the natural world.  It is ‘the world’ of human beings without Christ, and the representative leaders of that world.  The opposition between Christians and ‘the world’ is like that between darkness and light.  Yet the world is loved by God.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  (John 3:16)

When John and James write about loving the world, or friendship with the world, they connect their comments with, as John puts it “the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches” (1 Jn 2:16).  The danger in mind is that Christian character will be crowded out.

“But the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing.”  (Parable of the Sower, Mark 4:19, cf. Matt 13:22)

“No one can serve two masters,” after all (Matt 6:24).  A quasi-biblical phrase, “in the world not of it”, is a useful way of remembering this fundamental connection between holiness and presence.  Christians can’t be “the light of the world” (Matt 5:14) if they aren’t even present or visible.  They can’t be “the salt of the earth” (5:13) if their distinctive flavour is lost.  So the New Testament requires holiness, but not at the cost of separatism.

I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.  Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.  As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.  (John 17:14–18)

  • Does this idea only appear in the New Testament, or is it in the Old Testament as well?  Does it develop over time?
  • Think of a sectarian movement, if there’s one whose history you know well.  How did it come to view itself as needing to escape from the world?  Did it end up becoming “of the world not in it”?
  • Do you find Christians often manage to be morally distinct, yet wholly present?  What do you find hardest about this?

3.c.v.   Never letting fears alarm us

Several kinds of fears appear in scripture, and there is no one right response to all of them.  ‘Fearing God’ is fairly straightforward: if you know God, and know that his justice is inescapable, the term becomes a synonym for choosing good over evil.

‘Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom;
and to depart from evil is understanding.’  (Job 28:28)
So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you?  Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul… (Deut 10:12)

Then, understanding God to be faithful, fearing God eliminates many fears and relativises most others.  On the one hand, there is a hope of protection or deliverance; on the other an expectation of adversity and persecution.  Even in the worst case scenario, where one is tortured and killed, the faithful will still be vindicated.

With the Lord on my side I do not fear.  What can mortals do to me?  (Psalm 118:6)
I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.  (Psalm 34:4)
Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.  (Matt 10:28
The fear of others lays a snare, but one who trusts in the Lord is secure.  (Prov 29:25, cf.  19:23)
Do not fear what you are about to suffer.  (Rev 2:10)

There were many legitimate fears that Israelites and Christians faced in scripture.  A partial list would include unreliable agriculture, wild animals, foreign militaries, the dangers of travel in antiquity, social powerlessness and abuse, and Christians being something in between suspicious and illegal to Greco-Romans and heretical to Jews.  The Psalms (e.g. Ps 56), see David processing his fears in especially trying circumstances, and Paul’s long lists of the dangers he faced and the toll that they took certainly suggest similar stresses (2 Cor 11:23–28).  Both he and Jesus prudently avoided mob violence (Luke 4:30; Acts 9:23).  Paul’s comments on his time in Corinth especially show that it is not the emotion of fear, on its own, that is the problem.

And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.  (1 Cor 2:3)
For even when we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted in every way – disputes without and fears within.  (2 Cor 7:5)

However, other fears are much more problematic.  Even when the Assyrian army is about to invade Israel, and fears and rumours are swirling about everywhere, Isaiah prophesies:

Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what it fears, or be in dread.  But the Lord of hosts, him you shall regard as holy; let him be your fear, and let him be your dread.  (Isa 8:12–13)

This accords with a general stance against fear as a state of mind in Christian thought and practice.

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.  (1 John 4:18, cf.  Rom 8:15, Heb 2:15)
Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  (Phil 4:6–7)

I will presently discuss the situation of Christian wives who had unbelieving husbands (1 Pet 3, §3.c.vi).  They had no legal recourse or other alternatives in the case of mistreatment, any more than slaves did.  Peter’s advice to them should certainly be applied by modern Christians worried by much less direct threats to their well-being:

“do what is good and never let fears alarm you.”  (1 Pet 3:6)

This attitude is especially significant when opposition, persecution, and, as a result, new fears, are an expected part of Christian faith.  Jesus promises as much; and Paul acknowledge fears in his own life and those of his churches; they just go with the territory.  This builds substantially upon the martyrdom traditions that developed most definitively in Judaism in the period between the two testaments.

“Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute?”  (Acts 7:52)
“If they persecuted me, they will persecute you” (Jesus, John 15:20; cf.  2 Tim 3:12)

But then, some fears are always wrong, and so are some ways of responding to them.  The main examples of these are rumours and conspiracies, perhaps building upon some legitimate fears.  As we have seen, paying attention to these, and especially to the detriment of trusting God, is repeatedly discouraged.  Fearing people becomes wrong when it compromises our integrity, and takes priority over our proper fear of God.

But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed.  Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated.  (1 Pet 3:14)
Indeed, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.  (2 Tim 3:12)

These two cases, then, seem the most relevant for distinguishing prudence on the one hand from either panic or intimidation on the other hand.  Is the fear legitimate?  And do we let the fear take precedence over our faith?

As with anger, fear can pull us out of shape, or leave us paralysed or antagonistic.  It can turn us against others, and can easily appear more justified than it is.  It can become a habit.  If the way that we speak and think does not measure up to the ways that Christians are expected to speak and think, then we can be confident that we are responding wrongly to our fears in public life.

First of all, we must keep them in perspective.  Rarely if ever will any modern western Christian face greater difficulties than Paul or Jesus, who were imprisoned and (probably both) executed by their own governments.  We can’t say that their understanding of Christian character and conduct is impractical because we face some social pressures they could never have imagined.  In Christianity, winning is being like Christ, regardless of anything, and even if it kills you too.  Being tricked or tempted into godlessness is no way to take a stand for faith.

Secondly, there are ways that we can reduce the fears we face.  If Christians keep learning and listening, and doing so ahead of time, we’ll be less likely to be threatened or put off balance by other people’s rages and fears, let alone their ideas and perspectives.  Working industriously on our understanding means we will be better placed so say something useful in response.  Best of all, having sufficient understanding to talk about our mutual concerns, will mean reducing the need to go on the attack or defence.  We’ll be better able to cooperate for the common good, and to cultivate the soft virtues that make a strong society: fairness and kindness, openness and objectivity, toleration and respect, patience and goodwill.  And if we do so as communities, then we will cover more ground and will be collectively stronger.  The work of learning and listening need not fall on just a few individuals.  This is one way to be Seeking peace in exile (§3.c.ii).


  • Have you seen Christian politics or media focus on fear?  Did the fears seem legitimate, whether at the time or retrospectively?
  • Should Christians be naturally resistant to manipulation by fear?  What principles, attitudes, or practices should assist with this?
  • Is fear more compelling when it is fear for yourself or for others?  Once a fear is accepted, how can a person think critically about it?
  • When Christians disagree about whether a certain fear is legitimate, how shouod they resolve that disagreement?  Can your answer be extended to similar disagreements in civil society?

3.c.vi.   Rejecting antagonism

Western Christians are very far from being persecuted by world standards – plenty experience ‘micro-aggressions’ at most – but antagonism is a common experience for others, and especially in other parts of the world, and is largely expected in scripture.  Jesus was crucified, and Paul could write a lengthy paragraph of all the ways he had been attacked and mistreated in his relatively short ministry life (2 Cor 11:23–27).  Haters will hate:

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.  (Jesus, Matt 5:11–12)

But notice the word ‘falsely’ – we are expected to ensure that there are no legitimate reasons for opposition.  Provocation, opposition or abuse is simply never an excuse for bad Christian behaviour, whether such behaviour takes the form of irrationality, aggression, or disrespect.  Recall For a moment the fundamental importance of blessing and not cursing; see Not repaying insults (§3.a.vii).

The classic (the only?) verse on Christian ‘apologetics’ has nothing to do with brushing up on clever arguments.  It was addressed to Roman wives and Roman slaves, people with limited education and very few legal protections from violence, who were enduring unjust suffering at the hands of unbelieving slave owners or husbands (see 1 Pet 2:18–3:7).  The passage applies to us, though, because we can surely take the same care in considerably more favourable and privileged circumstances:

… Always be ready to make your defence [apologia] to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.  Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.  (1 Pet 3:15–16)

Christians often characterise opposition as being, like Jesus, “hated without a cause” (John 15:25) – or at least without a valid cause, since he faced no end of spurious complaints.  But, used as a reflex, this can be a cop-out.  In 1 Peter 3, antagonism comes with questions.  Rather than reacting with antagonism of our own, we should be thinking through those questions, so that we are ready to answer them.

[Love] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  (1 Cor 13:7)

We have seen by now how the New Testament focuses deeply on gentleness and patience, non-retaliation, and living above reproach in the eyes of others (§1.c, §3.a.ii, §3.c.i).  Antagonism from others should help us to show Christian character more fully, rather than pull us out of an identifiably Christian shape or character.

Of course, Christians don’t just experience antagonism.  We can also propagate it, or repay it.  This problem is a particular focus of the book of James, who we saw in our initial summary (§1.b):

You must understand this… Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger, for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.  (James 1:19–20).

He continues that ‘the tongue is a fire’ that could easily burn down a whole forest (James 3:5–6).

no human being can tame the tongue.  It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.  With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.  From the same mouth come blessing and cursing.  My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so.”  (James 3:8–9)

The principle of “blessing not cursing” raises the question of whether there is a verbal equivalent of Jesus’ principle of non-retaliation.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”  (Matt 5:38–41)

Most likely what a Christian thinks of that depends on what they think of non-retaliation in the first place.  The statements about our speech are crystal clear, though:

Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.  If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”  No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.  (Rom 12:17–21)
When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly.  (1 Cor 4:12–13)
See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all.  (1 Thess 5:15)

This is repeated in several forms elsewhere and exemplified in the prohibition on insults we find in Peter, James and Romans: “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult.  On the contrary, repay evil with blessing,…” (1 Pet 3:9, cf.  Rom 12:17, James 3:9).  Recalling the trees and their fruit, this would mean not nursing in our hearts or minds the attitudes and desires that bubble up as insults.  Writing to Corinth, Paul considers the existence of lawsuits between congregation members to be a sign of defeat:

In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you.  Why not rather be wronged?  Why not rather be defrauded?  But you yourselves wrong and defraud – and believers at that.  Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God?  (1 Cor 6:7–9)

Passages like these fundamentally question the idea that Christians should ever act antagonistically.  It’s not the kind of thing we do.  It’s a defeat, a weakness, and a failure to do so.


  • On what issues do you find Christians most prone to react antagonistically?  What do you see as the effect of this?
  • Think of some kind of opposition that Christians face in your circles.  Is it warranted?  Whether warranted or not, can it be reduced to questions about Christian faith?  Can you answer those questions in terms your opposition could reasonably be expected to understand?

3.d.   When does not listening become a problem?

Above, we assembled a short list of five values that should guide Christian learning (§2.c).  In the main, these considered the ways we should learn and think.  We can now add a longer list of those that should guide how we listen and speak.  Once again, these have been drawn from Christian scripture and so represent a specifically Christian approach to learning, expanding on the essential commitment to love our neighbours.  This list can be stated positively or negatively:

Kindness, gentleness, patience vs Quarrelling, harshness, dismissal
Seriousness, sincerity vs Shallowness, bad faith, bad humour
Right judgements vs Hypocrisy, wrong or harsh judgements
Slow anger vs Apathy, injustice, rage, revenge, hatred
Blessing, encouragement vs Abuse, contempt, vulgarity, ‘empty talk’
Self-control vs Insults, retaliation, rage, fear
Peace, unity vs Bitterness, discord, withdrawal
Freedom of conscience vs Factions, fault-finding, dogmatism, legalism
Exhortation, reproof vs Sin, complicity, indifference
Quiet respectability vs Scandals, disrepute, avoidable trouble
Peace in exile vs Despair, conformity, combativeness, power
Clarity, boldness vs Unpreparedness, hesitation, intimidation
Holiness, presence vs Compromise, separatism, isolation
Fearlessness vs Worry, faithlessness, paralysis, antagonism
Non-retaliation vs Antagonism, loss of character

This will conclude our study of listening and the values that support it.  Before proceeding to apply these values to the peculiarly contemporary challenge of polarisation, we will once more ask two basic questions about how we can apply these values.  Firstly, when does neglecting these values become morally wrong?  Here, I’ll provide a summary of the preceding sections in the form of a personal inventory of questions.  And secondly, to consider a practical problem, how should we approach a conflict over an issue in a Christian community?

3.d.i.   Some practical questions – Part two

We have seen that simple-mindedness, for all its many problems, does not disqualify a person from Christian faith (§2.c.i).  But antagonism is another question entirely.  We can point to righteous anger and some occasional insulting and judgemental language in scripture, but the same sources give us long lists of cautions regarding antagonism.  We’ll have see by now how love, forgiveness, mercy, and non-retaliation have filtered through the dozen or so themes considered above, and all the warnings attached to neglecting them.  These sections can be boiled down to a list of questions offering a personal inventory.  As before, see if you can list the parts of scripture which addressed each issue:

Am I kind, gentle and patient? (§3.a.ii).  Is this central to my idea of a morally good life?  Do I subscribe to the whole nexus of ‘soft virtues’ that gather around these qualities?  Do I take an interest in the well-being of others, without borders or dividers?  Do I, in general, prefer others ahead of myself?  Is my kindness apparent in generosity with my time and resources?  Am I tender and willing to yield?  Am I at peace, and do I also make peace, rejecting harshness and stridency?  Do I show endurance and steadfastness in hardship, and mercy and forbearance with others’ failings?  Am I long-suffering, for other people’s sake?  Have I a gentle and quiet spirit?  In my church relationships in particular, do I care for others like a mother with her child, and do they become dear to me?  Are these the ways I think about love and wisdom in practice, even if love and wisdom mean drawing boundaries and making hard choices at other times?  Do I reject retaliation?  Do I think these qualities in any way conflict with godliness or practical Christian living?

Do I bless others with my words? (§3.a.vii).  Do I repay cursing and persecution with blessing and prayer?  Do I speak evil of no one, but hope the best for them?  Am I rather a source of encouragement?  Do I offer practical help in addition to blessing, and so not speak empty words?  Do I reject obscene, silly, or vulgar talk?  Do I reject slander and abusive language unconditionally?  Do I cultivate a lifelong character of honesty, and reject using tricks like oaths or expletives as ways to boost my apparent truthfulness?  Do I speak with respect, rejecting dismissal or contempt of others, or desire for their misfortune?  Do I especially reject using vulgarity to insult, or to indulge or reinforce anger?  Do I aim instead to encourage, strengthen, and affirm by my words?

Am I serious, conscientious and sincere? (§3.a.iii).  Do I speak as someone speaking for God?  Would most people who hear me say that I speak with integrity?  With a soundness that is hard to criticise?  Do I sometimes struggle to speak seriously when I need to?  Or on the other hand, do I veer into a kind of sternness, or a harsh asceticism that has trouble expressing joy, praise, and humour?  Can I both rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep?

Am I oriented toward peace and unity? (§3.b.i).  Do I consider myself to be intrinsically united with other Christians, and does this affect the way I speak?  In seeking peace and unity among Christians, do I see myself living out our reality in God?  Do I see peace just as much grounded in God’s nature and presence as love or wisdom is?  Do I avoid bitterness, discord, quarrelling, contentiousness, and the kinds of controversies that mostly produce dissensions, factions, and mistrust?  Do I refuse to pass on tasty rumours or disparaging memes that will drive antipathy or division?

Do I respect that others, especially in disputes, may be speaking conscientiously? (§3.b.ii).  CanI recognise that a person of intelligence and good will may nonetheless disagree with me on important matters?  Am I presently seeking to understand someone who differs from me?  But do I also require that both sides will seek peace, unity and understanding, so that conscientious differences won’t become a wedge for splintering communities, whether intentionally or unintentionally?  Do I try to live by my own conscience, even while recognising that it is fallible, and aiming to perfect and mature it?

Do I correct, exhort and reprove fellow Christians if I believe they are wrong in their understanding or practice? (§3.b.iii).  Do I, on the other hand, encourage and exhort them toward doing good and thinking well?  Do I create a presumption of such correction or encouragement in my communities, help arbitrate such disagreements for others, and invite it for myself?  Do I express respect and appreciation for the people who do this well?  Am I motivated by wanting the best for them, and the good of the community?  Do I “show them their error” in clear and concrete terms, and aim to convince them, not just to register disapproval or express indignation?  Is my intervention motivated by help, holiness, reconciliation, and hope?  Do I ‘wink’ at wrong-doing, or turn a blind eye to hypocrisy, immorality, and injustice?  Do I make sure I genuinely understand their position, if they have a different understanding?  Do I do so privately, then with arbitration or the involvement of community leaders, and only then if the problem is severe, by involving the community or the public?  Do I guard myself against hypocrisy, insults, partisanship, or rage in my involvement?  Do I recognise that sin is deceitful, and that I could myself be mistaken or in the wrong?

Am I focused on making good moral judgements, as opposed to either making bad judgements or trying to avoiding them? (§3.a.iv).  Am I truth-seeking, humble, and impartial in doing so?  Do I exercise enough self-suspicion to check if my judgements are either wrong in themselves, or wrongly motivated?  Am I attentive to the dangers of hypocrisy, divisiveness on unimportant matters, or harsh or legalistic judgements – those made without mercy, compassion, sadness, hope, or love?  Do I judge by appearances, that is, based on only superficial knowledge?  Do I myself fall into the temptations of rage as I try to understand wrongs done to others?  Do I judge others, or my opponents, for flaws I excuse in myself, or in the groups or causes I support?  Am I quicker to forgive myself, or people like me, and slower to forgive others?  Do I recognise in myself the same frailties and temptations that others suffer?  In making judgements do I take pleasure in quarrelling, or in assumed superiority?

Do I live quietly and respectably? (§3.c.i).  Or am I justly disrespected for failing even common social standards of propriety, let alone Christian standards of love and holiness?  Do I bring scandal and disrepute upon Christians in general?  Am I, say, ignorant, rude, hypocritical, or prone to wrong judgements in society?  Am I calm and settled in the face of opposition?  Do I contribute to the well-being of my society and community, despite being a foreigner here?  Do outsiders say of you, for example, that “they are a true Christian”?  Does my church choose only leaders that are respected in wider society – and how do we check?  Do I respect the genuine conscientious moral knowledge of people who are not Christian, and take pains to maintain a clear conscience before them, not only before God?  Can we live without political power?  Can we pursue peace with others and Christian holiness, together?

Do I pray to speak clearly, confidently and convincingly?  Do I pray to speak boldly and without intimidation? (§3.c.iii).  What steps am I taking, on my own initiative, to achieve these goals?  Do I work to understand the people to whom I speak, and adapt what I am say to their understanding?  Fundamentally, do I speak with people more than I speak at, about, or against them?  Do I speak boldly, but can say nothing clear or convincing, and so appear simply emotional or uncomprehending?  On the other hand, do I fear the threats, pressures, or esteem of others, and so hesitate or stay silent?  Can I be authentic and fearless even in the face of real danger?  Do I seek to be filled with God’s spirit, and for this to make me both clear and bold?

Do I aim to be holy, but without losing contact with society? (§3.c.iv).  Are there matters on which I will compromise for the sake of social approval?  Do I think that to avoid compromise, I have to avoid social interaction with wider society?

Do I respond well to other people’s antagonism? (§3.c.vi).  Do I consider seriously whether there are valid reasons for opposition or even hatred?  Do I strive to ensure that there are no valid reasons, rather than just assume I’m being hated for my personally astounding levels of godliness?  If antagonism comes with questions, do I take care to answer those questions?  Do I respond with gentleness and respect when this happens?  (At the same time, do I refer anything actually illegal to law enforcement, and vocally support laws that prevent persecution or abuse?)  And do I also reject antagonism? Am I careful about the dangers of my words to cause destructive conflicts?  Do I refuse to repay evil for evil or insult with insult?  Instead of being overcome by evil, do I overcome it with good?  Do I bless when reviled, endure when persecuted, and speak kindly when slandered – or do I trade in scorn and contempt?  Do I believe it is better to suffer wrong than to do wrong?  Do I reject retaliation and revenge?  Do I entrust judgement to God, and let go of bitterness?

Do I maintain self control? (§3.a.vii).  Do I reject insults, where they step beyond legitimate reproof, or when they vent anger?  Do I control my angers and fears, or do they control me – or could others control me through them?  Figuratively, do I snap and bite at others?  Do I call people names, or hope by name-calling to slur, humiliate, or abuse whole groups?

Am I slow to anger? (§3.a.vi).  Do I distinguish moral judgements from boiling rage or running grievances?  Do I eliminate from my life every kind of bitter or malicious thought?  Am I able to be kind and tenderhearted, and so forgive?  Do I strive always to be impartial and to reconcile?

In sum, do I listen?  Do people who know me online or in real life say I am quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger?  In every one of these ways, do I speak to please God rather than people?

3.d.ii.   Oh no!  A conflict about an issue!

It’s easy to make only one side of an argument and think we’ve gotten it perfect.  It is easier still when we don’t even know the other side, and easiest of all when we speak only to the people on our own side.  These dynamics lead us more-or-less directly into either or both of the Two Classic Blunders – either starting with bad information, or having good information but then making mistakes in the way that we think it through.  Sometimes we draw the wrong conclusions through bad reasoning or logical fallacies, but more often it happens through arguing in bad faith.  Much of what we’ve already considered addresses these two blunders.  The following qualities, which we’ve already discussed, appear relevant here:

Do we have good information?   (PUSH)
Patience.  Have we allowed a period of preparation, and given each side time to both prepare their case and digest what the other has prepared?  Have we both agreed on questions and perspectives that really matter?  Do we allow the others time and space to think, as the pressures of life allow?
Understanding.  Do we understand both of the sides being argued, as well as the common ground?  Do our opponents say we represent them accurately?  Can we summarise what the others have said, to their satisfaction, and identify agreements, and appreciate why someone might believe that in good faith, before we criticise it?
Self-suspicion.  Do we check our understanding and our motives?  Do we express ourselves clearly and invite knowledgeable people from other perspectives to comment on what we are saying?  Do we model humble self-suspicion publicly?  Can we still be clear and bold in what we say?
Helping others.  We can’t all do this much work for every issue we come across, and less so as individuals.  Can we co-author a document as the product of our discussion, with the best material of both sides represented, for the benefit of others?
Are we arguing in good faith?   (FISH)
Fairness.  Do we attribute ideas and motives to the other people, rather than letting them to speak for themselves?  At the very least, do we treat them the way that we’d want them to treat us?
Impartiality.  Do we treat each side equally?  Are we aiming to hear them both at their best?  Do we avoid premature judgements?  Can we agree upon a mutually respected third-party, who can judge any dispute about how this discussion is happening?
Sincerity.  Do we believe and stand behind what we are saying, not just repeat slogans or talking points?  Would we be disturbed and sorry to have been wrong?  Do we raise issues that matter and stick with them long enough to cover them properly?  Do we have a purpose in the conversation that we won’t admit?
Humility.  Do we recognise what we don’t know, and respect those who know more?  Have we thought through what it would mean for us if we found we were wrong?

3.e.   A practical case study: Polarisation

Polarisation is the process of forming increasingly antagonistic social divisions.  It builds on something relatively natural and innocent that all of us experience.  We all are born into specific time and places, into existing communities, into established histories and cultures, and we cannot help absorbing them, trusting them, feeling at home in them, and so, being deeply invested in them.  We inevitably think that ours are sensible and obvious, while others are funny and weird.  We recognise ‘us’ and ‘them’, and while this recognition can be blinkered or parochial, it is not wrong in itself.  But we can pit ourselves against the other people in ways that cross increasingly serious moral lines.

I. Partiality and division ‘We’ are trusted, ‘they’ are suspect.
II. Falsehoods and propaganda I’ll tell you what they’re really like…
III. Agitation and manipulation Be angry!  Be afraid!  Don’t be a fool!
IV. Antagonism and hostility We’ve got to get them before they get us.
V. Polarising others If you’re not with us, you’re against us.

It is important to note that many of the reasons for polarisation can be valid, or at least plausible.  That’s why it works.  There may be real threats out there, we may need to raise the alarm about these, and stopping them may be a part of our duty of care to each other.  But people can trade on that uncertainty to divide, agitate, misinform, and antagonise us, and we can do these things to our own communities and to ourselves.

3.e.i.   Five moral boundaries in polarisation

We can distinguish five clear lines that a person crosses as they first experience and then begin to participate in polarisation.  At each level the moral choices become sharper from a Christian perspective.

I.  Partiality and division.
We start to draw hard lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and judge each group by different standards.  Like in the New Testament, social class and ethnicity are the most ‘natural’ of these divisions, but any difference will do: where we’re from, our kind of work, our education level, and so on.  We know our kind of people best so we afford them more trust and concern than others.  Over time we have less and less contact with outsiders, and speak about them more than with them.  This makes it easier to believe falsehoods about them, or believe that they have bad intentions.  We believe the best about ‘us’ and the worst about ‘them’, and keep apart.
II.  Falsehoods and propaganda.
We believe slanted news and partisan sources, at first, by not knowing better.  We start to judge information by whether it comes from our side or theirs, and are less concerned to verify the information we pass along, if it’s on the right side.  We encounter the other side mostly through the way our side talks about them.  We allow our side to say what others ‘really’ think or want, and we give ourselves the right to attribute thoughts and intentions to them, both as individuals and as groups.  We prefer our understanding of them to their own, even about their own position or convictions.  The other side, as first seen as ignorant, are now seen as deluded and then dishonest – why listen to them?  An accumulation of falsehoods can seem mutually confirming if they are not tested against contrary views, and can further block conversation with people who disagree.  Disagreements may be explained by stupidity, lies and conspiracies on the other side – we hold that people of goodwill would never think that way.  We use motivated reasoning to seek to support our position, but not to examine or test it.  Both lies and conspiracies may escalate from being a conclusion drawn from facts – whether reasonably or not – to being a lens through which facts are filtered, thus preventing counter-evidence from ever being heard.  At the far end of the spectrum, intentional propaganda goes hand-in-hand with deliberate agitation and manipulation.
III.  Agitation and manipulation.
We begin to be concerned about the other people, and what they think and want.  It becomes our cause to expose and condemn the danger they represent.  We go looking for more information on these dangers, distribute what sems useful for raising awareness, and worry about the future.  Through constant repetition our concerns escalate into mistrust, cynicism, anxiety, fear, anger, rage.  Why is no-one taking action?  Who will stand up to them?  Are we just going to let them get away with it?  We motivate ourselves and others by these means.  Needless to say, these emotions interfere with our ability to hear what others are actually saying for themselves, or trusting what they say.  They must be put in their place, shown up as the frauds they are.  At the far end of the spectrum, intentional manipulation goes hand-in-hand with falsehoods and propaganda.
IV.  Antagonism and hostility.
We begin to act and react primarily in opposition to other groups, as much or more so than in response to facts, values, or ideals.  We neglect self-criticism, and no longer hold others in our groups accountable for representing opponents fairly and honestly.  We reject cooperation with our opponents, and start making up names for them.  If experts are considered to represent the other side, they will also be considered to be compromised.  We consider that taking the time to be objective or impartial is weak or naive, fostering confusion and uncertainty that our enemies will exploit.  The amount of neutral ground keeps shrinking, so that everyone is either with us or with them.  Our hostility and antagonism helps to insulate us from conversations that would rehumanise our opponents, or allow them to correct misunderstandings, or vice versa.  We promote disaffection and disruption to the detriment of the common good, thinking the first and most important goal is stopping our opponents.
V.  Polarising others.
We decide that if polarisation increases, our group will be more committed, more combative, and will see our cause as their identity.  We no longer merely experience polarisation but see it as the way things are, and then as a tool or a weapon.  We promote division and antagonism by controlling information and manipulating emotion, to make people pick sides.

We might also recognise a sixth layer, though I won’t be considering it here.  This is the act of deliberately polarising a society for the purpose of fragmenting and splintering it.  These tactics have been used by autocratic states to attack democracies in recent years, as the technologies of social media and computational propaganda have developed.  This will not be considered here, as its forms vary widely, but an awareness of polarisation and a resistance to its lower levels will offer the best defence against its weaponised forms.

Polarisation is easy and natural, especially if groups of people cease to listen to other perspectives.  It’s not hard to create antagonism, with a little repetition.  This is the danger of ‘bubbles’ and echo chambers, whether online, provincial, sectarian, or of any other kind:

Our convictions are obvious and good; how do people not see that?
They must not know any better.
Yes, but our convictions are obvious and good – and they still disagree?
Deep down they must know, but be in denial.
Sure, but our convictions are obvious and good – and they speak against them?
They have been deluded by ideology.  Bad people have gotten to them.
Of course, but our convictions are obvious and good – and they try to persuade others?
They have become dishonest and dangerous.
Well, obviously, but when our convictions are so obvious and so good…
You can’t reason with people like that.

At every stage antagonism more strongly reinforces itself.  It prevents understanding, because once the other group is an enemy, they can’t be trusted to speak truly or act in good faith.  Partisans are too mistrustful to find common ground, so there’s no point listening.  The Christian values of humility, impartiality, and rejecting falsehood suffer first, but others quickly follow.  What do our answers to the question “How Should Christians Think and Speak?” say about all this?


  • Try and write out a couple of characteristic phrases that you might hear in each of the five stage of polarisation.  Where did you last hear each of them?
  • At which of the five levels of polarisation would the following statements describe us?
    • We don’t worry about whether we understand opposing views.
    • We don’t make space for our opponents to speak with us face-to-face, both in private and in public.
    • We can’t explain or distinguish the variety of position on the other side, who is moderate and who is extreme, or how relatively popular each position is.
    • We follow only news or media that positively take our own side, and ignore or dismiss purported objectivity or impartiality.
    • We cease to ask hard questions of people with whom we agree.
    • We regard cooperation and communication as a danger.
    • We speak about them more than we speak with them.
    • We regard opposing views as wilfully and self-evidently stupid or evil.
    • We evaluate information fore-mostly by whether it comes from, or is consistent with, our chosen side.
    • We cease to see the other side as our neighbours, or to empathise with them.
    • We mock our opponents, whether out of sight or to their faces.
    • We excuse lower standards of truth and decency from our allies.
    • We feel we have nothing to learn from people who disagree with us.
    • We encounter the other side only through the things people on our side say about them.
    • We treat the worst examples of our opponents as typical, representative, “what they’re really like”, or “the logical conclusion” of their view.
    • We can’t put ourselves in the other person’s position and think things through from their perspective.
    • We can’t acknowledge good they do, or strengths they have, or qualities we admire in them.
    • We excuse or condemn otherwise identical behaviour depending on who does it.
    • We don’t believe anybody even tries to be objective or impartial.
    • We can’t work together with our opponents for the sake of the common good.
    • We say that large numbers of people wilfully lie in order to oppose us.
    • We reject the idea that there is common ground.  It’s all or nothing.

3.e.ii.   How can Christians prevent polarisation?

Should Christians be naturally resistant to polarisation, and should we automatically oppose it in society?  The qualities of Christian thought and speech intersect with every layer and degree of polarisation in society.  They also offer important ways to recover legitimate issues and focus on right responses to them.  At each of five major checkpoints, polarisation can be stopped and searched, its machinations exposed, and its machinery dismantled.

I.  Partiality and division.  Prioritise peace and unity in Christian communities, and quiet respectability in society.  Suspect yourself of natural partiality to people of your own class and ethnicity, and against outsiders; expect that people will use this tendency to try and control you.  Proactively love your neighbour, where your ‘neighbour’ is anyone to whom you can offer practical care, without borders or limits, and deliberately treat them as you wish them to treat you.  Demand honesty and impartiality from media, activists, and society, especially politics.  Commit to speaking with the others, as individuals and groups, more than you speak about them in their absence.  Demand that leaders and activists speak face-to-face in public with people who differ, and justify their positions.  Create forums for genuine dialogue and resources for mutual understanding; cooperate on the common good you share.
II.  Falsehoods and propaganda.  Distinguish questions of fact from stories about what the facts mean.  Suspend partiality so that you can be objective and fair.  Hear both sides, or all sides, in order to eliminate your own blind-spots, and those of your group.  Understand others well enough that you will not gullibly believe falsehoods about them; and check whether they recognise your understanding to be correct and charitable.  Understand movements and groups well enough that you can distinguish common or central ideas from fringe ideas, and explain which of their views you consider the best – the one you hope that you might have held if you had grown up over there.  Reject falsehood by checking and publicly confessing any falsehoods, gossip, and slander you may have transmitted.  Demand these qualities and practices from your own side, especially those who speak and act publicly, and absolutely insofar as they claim to be Christian.
III.  Agitation and manipulation.  Keep anger slow, and insults self-controlled.  No emotion should be entertained that cannot also be paused or suspended for the purpose of patient listening and impartial judgement.  Angers, fears, and insults that come to mind must be impartially justified, considered without haste or loss of self-control, and offered in gentleness, kindness, and humility.
IV.  Antagonism and hostility.  Take responsibility for peace-making and reconciliation in church and society.  Reject retaliation in all its forms.  Require that any criticism of another must clearly “show them their fault” with the aim of exhortation, reproof, and reconciliation.  Moral judgements must be made with compassion and mercy, taking care that we ourselves do not fall prey to accompanying temptations: harshness, rage, and hypocrisy.
V.  Polarising others.  Require that self-declared Christians, Christian organisations, and figures seeking Christian support in society must publicly recognise the moral dangers of polarisation and commit themselves to opposing these dangers in public life.  If they refuse without giving reasonable justifications, then treat their polarisation as intentional and therefore anti-Christian.  Even if you must support them as the best of a bad set of choices, expose their polarisation, pointing out the concrete falsehoods and agitation, the propaganda and manipulation, that it relies upon, and explaining how it should be considered a sin in Christian moral understanding.  Do not be identified with their sins.

There is no concern in the Old or New Testament that widespread social polarisation may develop.  Social differences, mistrusts, and conflicts were entrenched and, for practical purposes, always had been.  So there are no proof-texts about this phenomenon.  We perceive the problem as a regression from ideals of equality, civility, and rule of law, which broadly mesh with Christian ideals but took long centuries to put in place.  Yet if we understand polarisation in the way I have suggested – as a process of making five self-defining moral compromises – the we find them all considered in one way or another.


Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. (Nietzsche)
  1. What things do you see happening in society that you would call polarisation?
  2. Do you see Christian groups contributing to their own polarisation?
  3. How could you apply these principles to a polarising issue in your church or community?

4.   License

‘How Should Christians Think and Speak’ by Nigel Chapman is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.  (CC BY-NC 4.0).  Non-commercial is defined in the CC licenses as “not primarily intended for or directed towards commercial advantage or monetary compensation.”  Contact the author regarding any other use.  The text below is the official short summary of the license on the Creative Commons website, which is licensed CC-BY:1

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1 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
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